I liked her as soon as she opened the door, the Head that is. We went into the staffroom where she offered to make me a cup of tea - I was wincing at the thought of the taste, and wondered briefly if I could refuse without being impolite. Then I spotted Earl Grey on the side, which I haven't tasted since we moved here. "Ooh, you have Earl Grey!" I said without thinking. "Oh yes, our staff very multicultural, we have Earl Grey and green tea, do you want some?" she asked. I braced myself for the Earl Grey to taste foul, but magically it didn't. So unexpected was that I blurted out "Oh my goodness, it tastes OK!" The Head smiled, as if I had clocked a local secret. "Yes, we know, it's something to do with the bergamum offsetting the chemicals, [local] water is foul, isn't it?" I almost hugged her but then my inner superego hissed "For God's sake stop being such an Expat. Do not trust this woman with your child just because she knows how to make a drinkable cup of tea."
But actually, I needn't have worried, she was awesome. She'd asked her SENCO to come in especially to meet me and talk about my eldest - I'd deliberately been vague in my OP so they may have been expecting a more severely disabled child. Not once, as I outlined his issues, were the dread words "Oh, but LOTS of children do THAT" spoken. It was extraordinary, they "got" him before meeting him, asking precise and informed questions which made me feel they were more experienced than they were letting on. Other children in the school were referred to obliquely, with significant looks between them - "Oh, like J: we could try what we did for him" (turning to me) "Look, the way we have managed that in the past is, would you mind if..." It was a bit like having a shopping list, and arriving in the shop to find that the shopkeeper has read the list already and got a selection of products off the shelf for you to choose from. And offered you a cup of nice tea.
There are cultural upsides too. Homework is voluntary, they were very clear on that. So no more nightly meltdowns. I mentioned my son's prelidiction for hugging and kissing anything with a pulse (actually, that's not true, he has been known to kiss doors and stones too). They were fine with that. Hugging is apparently OK in New Zealand primaries. They don't stop children doing it, to each other or to teachers (although this policy might be up for review shortly, when they've spent a few weeks with my son permanently glued around their middles). On the downside, New Zealand schools are unlike English ones, very open - no walls, or fences, or gates. They suggested they paint some lines on the tarmac to show my son where the boundaries were. Support for transitional times in the day was offered, without my needing to request it. There were dozens of issues to cover, and they were sensible and enthusiastic about all of them. After about an hour, the Head looked at her Deputy and said "New Zealand schools aren't allowed to refuse students because of disability, but of course, there are ways, of getting the message across that you don't want a student if you want to," - they looked at each other and laughed so that I wondered what was coming next, and began running through alternative primary schools in my head, thinking Damn! The Tea! My head has been turned by the Tea! All this time I thought they were lovely and they were just waiting for the chance to be discouraging! I thought it was friendship but I was just on a tannin high! - "I want you to know that whilst we can't of course promise to meet his needs we have a real commitment in this school to welcoming those kids who see the world differently." Phew.
"So, your second son." He's due to start in July. Gloomily, I outlined the issues. "He's still in nappies," I winced, "although obviously I'm sure I will start pottytraining soon." An electric current ran across the room. "Ooh," they said with significant looks to each other, "THAT SOUNDS INTERESTING. Tell us more." "Well, you know, toddler diarrhoea, little sensation, no interest in training, UK school had a go but unless he was taken hourly..." "That's great!" enthuses the Deputy Principal, and then corrects herself "Sorry, I don't mean to say that's great, I'm sure it's very upsetting for you, but you know what, that is going to make it SO MUCH EASIER for us to get him support, it's a high care health need." They sat back with satisfaction on their faces, as if they had just solved a tricky crossword puzzle. You mean you don't want me to potty train a really reluctant child, who is quite comfortable in nappies, and has no real sense of needing to go, for another few months? The task I have been dreading? Oh, twist my arm.
I was just wondering if my eagerness to put off potty-training made me a terrible delinquent parent when the Head broke in. "I just want to say, how DO you cope?" Now I know that kind of stuff irritates a lot of parents of SN kids. But frankly, after six weeks in New Zealand without so much as a morning off, I was so grateful for the sympathy that if she'd given me one of these big Kiwi hugs I couldn't have been happier. Because when people say that normally, I immediately feel that I am undeserving, I think "yes but you don't understand, their issues are all very mild, I don't really deserve your kindness," which of course is true, there is no way in which my kids could be described as severe, but in this case they had an accurate picture in front of them. They knew my boys were high-functioning and still thought it might be a handful. I loved them for it. So obviously I am a needy emotional vampire who laps up sympathy from strangers. Oh well, never mind.
I guess they might be horrible underneath the niceness. They might be all empathy and wisdom and insight on the surface, and actually underneath are robotic jobsworths who are hoping to use platitudes and supportive generalities to put me off asking for anything expensive. But I doubt it. I don't think you CAN understand developmental delays and autism that clearly without being quite keen to do something to help.
There are tricky issues. They don't think Barnados is the right kind of childcare for my middle son. This is for complicated funding and access issues. They want us to find a local preschool or Kindy. Will have to think about that. But as problems go, that is a fairly minor one. And I learnt that Earl Grey, brewed strongly, with local water, could be drinkable. (NOte to self: but the Earl Grey in the CBD tasted horrible. Must enquire further as to precise brand of staffroom tea).