A New Journey

14 March 2017

It was the fronted adverbials that did it. For every jittery moment I had in considering the next leap we were to decide to take as a family, fronted adverbials, expanded noun phrases and spelling lists involving such vital everyday words as ‘quoits’ continually resurfaced in my mind. In the dark hours of the night these thoughts confused themselves with Gradgrind’s exacting definition of a horse, (‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive….’*), and I would wake with resolve. Education has to be about more than this, right?

I was on the edge of tears when I handed the letter in and spoke to the children’s teachers. I actually like schools. Correction, I like the potential that learning in and being part of a school community has to offer. I like shared values, collaborative learning, the energy and inspiration of the most passionate teachers. I like access to resources, shared spaces, singing together, performing, assemblies. I like my children finding role models in other adults. I like the idea that one moment, one teacher, one idea can be a turning point in a child’s life. I like celebrating beautiful work through displays, I like choosing themes and exploring them through myriad connections. I like proud parent moments. And possibly more than that, I used to like proud teacher moments. I liked mentoring children, discovering new ways of helping things to click. I loved those light bulb moments. I loved it when I’d managed it and they’d been inspired.

In short, I am not anti-school.

But I am thoroughly disillusioned with the way in which the system is moving. Happiness classes being trialled for 8 year olds, stress and children’s mental health disorders costing the NHS £105 billion a year, children needing to be ‘school ready’, and the red thread linking all the reports, articles, comments… the red thread is the constant need to test, to measure through testing, to drive results upwards and forwards, at the cost of – of learning being defined by a symbolic badge, demonstrating little more than the ability of a small being to regurgitate specific information at a fixed moment in time in response to a specific question. Education has been reduced to the acquisition of a grade, of passing a test, of getting a certificate.

I want children to learn more than how to guess accurately an answer that is in my – or the examiner’s – head. And I feel the imperative for this ever more acutely when I see the rate at which the world around us is changing. As technology disrupts every area of our lives, the primacy of a knowledge-based education has to be challenged. Ironically, even as technology such as a translation ear piece reaches accuracy which will radicalise communication, mainstream education takes a step backwards, insisting on rote learning of facts, on drilling and testing. It’s the old fashioned model of children as empty vessels waiting to be filled with predetermined information, rather than the consideration of children as naturally curious, naturally ready and hard wired to learn, to question, to inquire.

I recently read a perfect analogy for the futility of constant testing: weighing yourself daily doesn’t make you lose weight. Precisely: weight loss can be sought more reliably by moving more and eating less. And testing will not lead to better results any more than weighing will lead to weight loss. Better ‘results’, or more accurately, better outcomes, or children who are better learners, more eager to learn, more able to ask pertinent questions, more inquiring of mind will be and are the natural results of environments which give children opportunities to do what they do naturally and very effectively, namely, to learn.

A few weeks ago, H. came home and told me that ‘you can’t “crash quietly into a tree.” Excuse me? H. insisted that no, you cannot, under any circumstance write the descriptive phrase, ‘“I crashed quietly into a tree”, because, Mummy, a crash is noisy, so you can’t do it quietly.’ Why not, I asked her? If you wrote that for me, I would be delighted – perhaps you would be trying to express the terrifying internal silence as your life flashes before your eyes just before the crash. No. Her teacher had said you can’t write it. So you can’t.

I don’t have issues with the teacher, for whom I actually have a great deal of respect. I take issue with the fact that creative writing has become prescriptive, and at such a young age. It was bad enough at GCSE when we taught children to write for a specific reason (writing is grouped into a purpose, fitting neatly into a pithy triplet – to argue, persuade, advise or to inform, explain, describe; any child who veered off into imaginative territory which didn’t fit the marking criteria would miss the grade, however engaging, stimulating and original the work), but at least at GCSE there is the hope that you can tell the more creative students just to play the game this once and then get back to their interesting writing. H.’s comment was an insight as to why September generally began with Year 7 English classrooms filled with the same exciting simile: “I ran as fast as a cheetah.” To this is creativity in writing reduced.

So I arrive at a point in which I am by turn petrified, ecstatic, excited. I feel liberated and freed. We have stepped out. Out of an institution and into a story which we will co-create. I am under no illusions: there will be whole chapters in which I will be exhausted, distressed and questioning why I haven’t just sent them all to school to give myself a break. There will be whole chapters in which I will struggle to be teacher and mummy and still find moments to be Amy.

I hope I will remind myself in these moments of the following:

  • Before the children went to school, they actually learned a great deal. All of it without any direct instruction. They learned by imitation and experimentation, by trial and error. They learned to sit, then crawl and onwards to walk and run. They learned to speak and once they could, a whole new world of questioning was theirs. They learned lots of right and when they might have transgressed the boundaries to wrong. They learned masses about their own small world and a great deal about this massive world around them. They noticed and compared, commented and thought. They decided what and how they wanted to play.
  • I have questioned from day one whether teachers at the school really know my children or are really able to help them flourish and develop their talents. Aged four to five, H. used to create poetry books in her own time, carefully stapling pages together, writing short poems and illustrating them. This stopped with the onset of Year 1. I have wondered about a system which hasn’t the time or inclination to nurture the interests of the children within it. I’ve wondered why my children are being told to write in a prescribed way when they are in the full throes of creativity.
  • I have always been surprised by the teachers telling me what my children are capable of, as if I don’t know and then telling me what they think she/he can’t do, simply because they haven’t been privy to the insight I have.
  • Slavishly following catatonically boring reading schemes has done nothing to inspire either of my oldest two children to read. In my humble opinion, it has achieved nothing but the opposite, reducing  the fascination and wonder of words to a mind numbing linear process of decoding.
  • Although I am aware that my children would, more than likely, have left school largely unscathed and with fond memories, they would also have left thinking that learning is only learning if it is validated by a test and a mark. They would have left thinking that learning is work, to be got out of the way before the real stuff – play – can happen. The distinction between work and play was already apparent. Play was happening at home and work happening at school. Play was become what ‘I choose to do’ and work is what someone ‘makes me do’.

This is not the route I saw myself taking, but I hadn’t accounted for quite how comprehensively the national curriculum and the obsession with testing can pervade an education system. It’s another unknown and another potential risk. Today, though, the sun was actually shining brightly – quite literally. The sky was cobalt blue. It felt auspicious.

*Charles Dickens Hard Times