Breaking the rules

It’s half term and absolutely lovely to have M back in the tribe full-time. I am battling with feeling enlightened and progressive as a home educator whilst watching my 6-year old becoming part of an education system that I don’t believe in. I am only managing the reality of her being in school because in my head I can deregister her at any time. Of course, it’s not that simple.

Last week, M told me she had an idea for a story, could I create a ‘story challenge’ for her to do at school? The background to this is that the work at school seems to be too easy for her, and a while back I offered to send in some resources similar to those I use with the girls at home for M to use as extension exercises. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now I wonder what possessed me. Anyway, of course I told M I would draw a story planner that she could complete and her teacher said that was fine, she could do it if there was a gap in the day. Well there was time, because M tells me she always finishes first and goes to the book corner (nice, but she says it’s a bit boring to do every day) or goes on the iPad (not ok, no need for the screen, she’s only little).

After school she showed me her story plan, which was funny, detailed and illustrated (how much time had she had?!). She then asked B and I why she couldn’t use connectives such as ‘because’ at the beginning of her sentences. ‘You can write what you like, it’s your story’, replied her thoroughly deschooled big sister. Why is M being taught that she cannot play with language and be experimental? I read recently that this rigid approach to learning can be detrimental to children’s confidence, and it’s easy to see why.

Having her at home again this week, I can see with fresh eyes that M needs to be constantly busy. She flits from activity to game to chat to drawing in much the same way I know I am prone to. I understand why she is drawn to school: she wants to be where the action is and she wants to be given a job to do that she can easily achieve and quickly do another one. I’m onto her now. Now my job is to establish what the positive parts of her school day are (I’m guessing seeing her best friend and being part of a community – I also think M likes being part of the crowd) and try and meet those needs as a home educating family.

With my new eyes, I can clearly see that M will benefit from more space to explore her ideas. More sleep will be good for her too. We declared today Official Lazy Day, and the girls stayed in their pyjamas being anything but lazy all day long. There was dressing up, singing, building a model bridge, drawing, telling jokes, musical instruments, puzzles and books. Home education can be intense, but, to me, it’s the stronger education model at the moment. I think it’s time to be the grown-up, dig deep and break the rules again…

Being a child

When  article after article I read this month questions the ridiculously busy lives children today lead, and when I’m running a fairly successful alternative model to that frenetic lifestyle (for the kids at least), I have to wonder what the hell I am doing sending my six-year old to school.

We live close to a very nice school – I doubt I could find a better one nearby. The staff seem motivated and interested in the kids, and they work so hard. Many of the activities are lovely and my little girl seems happy. Which makes it all so much harder. I have never felt more of a grown-up. I’m not scared of the educational consequences; I think that home education smashes formal education out of the water. It’s the emotional fallout that terrifies me – M turning round in ten years time and screaming at me that I ruined her childhood. A says she will do this anyway, and with her huge, fearless blue eyes and big heart that spills over with emotion, I know she won’t pull any punches. If it’s not the day I take her out of school, it will no doubt be something else that rips her world apart.

Child psychologist, Dr Sam Wass, recently carried out a study with Centre Parcs that concluded that primary-aged children in the UK have too little downtime. According to Wass, over three hours each day should be dedicated to time outside, imaginative play and reading. I am really struggling to find those three hours. M has four pieces of homework each week. I recently filled in a homework survey for the school, adding a long message about the importance of family time and free time for small children. I can almost hear the headteacher tutting at me in her office across the park. Yesterday, M was filling in a book review as she shovelled porridge into her mouth at 8am. And all because the previous night she lay down on some cushions and read a book before tea instead of doing her homework. I’m not going to force her to do her homework, but equally I don’t want her multi-tasking manically as I am sometimes forced to do.

I am increasing my hours as a music practitioner in schools and as part of community events, and it strikes me that artists are now raising the funds for arts projects in our schools when the government should be footing the bill. Artists I know feel so passionately about the importance of music, dance and drama being part of the curriculum that they are painstakingly putting in funding bids in their own time. I could have wept today when I discovered that M’s reading group takes place during her art lesson. SHE CAN ALREADY READ! LET HER BUILD A BLOODY BIRD BOX!, I wanted to shout. The legacy for our young people, starved of creative opportunities, cannot be underestimated. The arts teach so much more than how to pirouette, or clap a rhythm. On Wednesday we pulled the percussion instruments onto the carpet, pilled up cushions around the piano and sang and sang and sang. I could feel the energy and happiness bursting out of M as she joyfully banged on her lollipop drum and sang Yellow Submarine at the top of her voice.

As time ticks by, A and I are heading for another big decision. The question becomes less ‘what education do we want for our child’, and more ‘what childhood do we want for her?’

Hamster wheel

This week has been marginally less jampacked than usual, with most after-school activities not starting until tomorrow. I have still found, though, that the pace has picked up and I have to ask whether all the dashing about is necessary.

When I was growing up in the 80s, you went to school and then you came home. Having checked with my mum that I haven’t misremembered my childhood, she agrees that ballet on a Thursday and a lunchtime piano lesson shared with my brother were the only organised activities outside school. Mum says we used to play with friends in the evenings, and I can remember pelting up and down the lanes around the village on my bike and building dens in the trees at the bottom of the field. There was a concrete slope at the back of the cottage and I can still feel the vibrations tingling through my feet as I slid precariously to the gate at the bottom on my little metal roller skates.

Over the years, parenting has become less something that you just do, and more a competitive art-form. It seems to me that we need to regain trust in our own ability to parent instead of filling our children’s days with activities led by other people. Our kids go to school for at least six hours, where the timetable is filled with objectives and very little time to breathe and ask questions. Evenings are then packed full with Brownies, swimming lessons, dance, sports clubs and, of course homework. Even weekends can quickly be lost if you engage with theatre club or football. Don’t get me wrong, I want my kids to be exposed to lots of different opportunities, but at what cost? If children are told what to think at school (because it’s more about measuring progress than considering process and wider thinking skills these days), and follow structured activities after school, when do they just muck about and play? When do they invent things or dream? How do they find things out for themselves? And when do they rest?

I was annoyed on Friday to receive a letter explaining that M would have to complete weekly homework on an education website. I’m fiercely protective of the time we can spend with M outside school, and once reading prescribed texts, spellings and now this other homework are done, there is even less time for her to dress up as a fierce eagle for a dance show with her sisters or make a toilet roll Leaning Tower of Pisa. Come on people, what’s the priority?!  It’s clear we are heading towards a mental health crisis (if we are not already in one) if children are not given the opportunities to develop vital thinking skills, creativity and resilience.

Firstly, artists, teachers and parents need to recognise the huge danger in eradicating arts subjects from the primary curriculum and fight back. My six-year old has no music lessons – how is that acceptable? Artists are applying for grants to go into schools and deliver workshops, hoping that the schools will scrape together some match funding to eek the project out. This is not good enough. Our schools should be offering a curriculum that embraces the arts and promotes their worth.

Next, let’s make flexible working a reality for more families. It’s a nightmare trying to find a job that fits in with school hours, and if you can’t, any financial incentive has to go on the extra childcare. Job-shares should become the norm alongside affordable, high-quality childcare to make it worth going to work in the first place.

Finally, and I’m as guilty of this as the next person, we shouldn’t be afraid as parents to say that enough is enough. We are all cramming our days full as if there is no tomorrow. Admittedly, at times over the last year it has felt as if the world might soon end, but rather than buy into the hype, why not spend some time during these winter months retreating into a book or stomping through mud? Call me a hippy, but in these dark times I am finding much joy in slowing down and walks on the beach. If you don’t want to venture out, just delve into the recycling and start on that toilet roll Leaning Tower of Pisa…

 

Breathing space

“I don’t want her to go back to school!”, sobbed B as I tucked her up in bed on Boxing Day. A week into the Christmas holidays I am inclined to agree. The space to breathe that comes with the absence of school has been welcomed by us all, even independent M, though she would never admit it. There is none of the reluctant peeling back of the duvet and whispering in M’s ear that she must get into her uniform; instead, a warm little daughter drags her chewed old blanket behind her and snuggles into our bed. She wakes when she wants to, sleeping for twelve hours solid. M has always been the best sleeper, giving her shut-eye the same amount of commitment that she gives everything else.

Even before home education was on the cards, I struggled with the endless trips to and from school. In many regards I struggle with a regular routine, preferring a spontaneity that meets the needs of my whirring mind. With four little girls to consider now, A and I have to put our heads together on a regular basis to ensure everyone is in the right place at the right time. Before school reappeared in our lives, I relished the long days. A question about snakes could turn into a morning making models of anacondas, or writing poems. M keeps asking what percentage means, and I want to plaster paper across the wall and create a bright, visual display with her. We bought her Happy Harry’s Cafe by Michael Rosen for Christmas, at her request. She said how much she loved the font, leaving me with thoughts of illuminated lettering and medieval scripts. I have loved watching her squirrel away at little projects, spend hours understanding the science of energy with her Lego constructions, play the piano and design posters for festive concerts for relatives.

Of course, there is nothing stopping me from learning at home with my schoolgirl. And that’s exactly what I did last term. M would rush through the door and demand an activity, and I would try and find time just to be with her, follow her interests. As the term went on, she got more and more tired, and eventually time after school was for rest. And that’s the reality of primary school now. The day is filled with targets that must be reached and objectives that must be taught. There is just so very little time for children to breathe and to question what is going on around them. M has had some really great experiences at school, I can be big enough to acknowledge that, but I’m just not sure they outweigh the freedom of a more autonomous approach to learning.

Next week, M will head back into year 2, and, after meetings with very helpful staff, she will access areas of the year 4 curriculum in spelling, reading and numeracy. A and I will also put together a file of ‘challenges’, for when she finishes activities quickly or is at a loose end. This is an improvement on the academic work on offer last term but I can’t help but think that very little of this will actually be taught, she will be working on her own, and I wonder if that matters.

I can tie myself up in knots weighing up learning at home versus school for M, just as parents all over the country no doubt question their child’s progress and happiness. I guess the difference is that I feel confident in our ability as a family to learn and see home education as a real and, in many ways, better alternative. I’m careful to remember that over the years there have been times when I have been burned out – life has presented challenges that have pushed me hard, and our unsuccessful school experiment in June was the result of a particularly stressful few months. But as the babies grow, and I grow up, the waves seem to get smaller and don’t always threaten to smash down the sandcastle as they might have done in the past.

Time to talk over Christmas and a catalogue of house sale disasters, along with a fresh perspective on what is important to us have led A and I to realise that there really is no place like home. For the cost of a new sofa bed and another set of bunks, we can happily stay in our little house near the sea. We will have less debt, be able to continue home educating, work on interesting artistic projects and may even go on holiday a bit more. I just need to remember to head for the beach or my local amazing bookshop/writing hole when the cabin fever kicks in.

So feeling a little more settled, we approach 2017 with optimism and hope for a productive and happy year. I still have so many questions that don’t yet have answers, but next year I am going to use my tendency to overthink to my advantage. Curiosity is a good thing.

Meeting in the middle

School is drawing to a close and I am reflecting upon how I feel about this term. It is a measure of how far we have come as a family that I feel more inclined to consider M’s progress at school than our learning at home. I am by no means immune to the occasional anxieties surrounding our choice to home educate, or the fear that I can not be enough to help my child grow. Sometimes I am I blinded by the glare of mainstream education; everyone else goes to school, what’s the problem? But now I am confident enough to know that schools do not offer the same experience to children that a freer way of learning can. That is not to say schools cannot offer that experience, we are simply living through a depressing era of testing and measuring, which breeds stress and inflexibility.

I want desperately to see the joy in M’s time at school, and here are the good bits: I have a positive dialogue with both the class teacher and the head. They have worked hard to respond to M’s needs when it became clear that she was working well outside her year 2 curriculum. M is now extended through her spellings, reading and numeracy, and after Christmas will be working on some research projects (similar to those she does with us at home). I really appreciate the extra work the teachers are putting in – the only thing that delayed the extension work being put into practice was the rigid assessment requirements. I am providing some work for M to do at school and am following their numeracy strategy to ensure continuity. I think all of this shows a healthy, rounded education for M, and demonstrates that learning takes place all the time, not just in the classroom. M has enjoyed the collaborative opportunities – the drama, the choir, the playtimes. Even I, with my tribe of many daughters, can’t put together a football team. M bounces in and out of school, happy and busy. There is much to be grateful for.

The downers: there’s a lot of sitting about and lining up: this does not appeal to the rebel in me. On days when the sun is shining, or the sky is wintery and pink I want to creep into M’s classroom and smuggle her to the beach, where I race across the sand with my home-educated daughters. I miss my girl at times like this, and those are the days I struggle most to agree that school is the best option for her. I want her to twirl seaweed around her head and collect shells in her blue bucket. There seem few opportunities for children at school to work on their own initiative. Literacy has become a blur of phonics, spellings and hideous grammar. designed to confuse the most imaginative writer. Modal verbs and relative clauses at primary school – really? Life gets hard enough as we grow up, why ruin the innocence of youth?! I want M to have time to breathe, to write poems or stories or read about pirates, not know what a subordinate clause is. The timetable is too filled with academic requirements so there is very little music, art or PE. This is a real shame, especially for those kids who express themselves best outside of an exercise book.

M is very tired now. The rehearsals for the school play and jam-packed days take their toll on our children. Every parent, without exception, tells me their child is ready for a holiday and a rest. Am I alone in wondering whether we should wait until our kids are so knackered they have to be woken at the last minute to get into their uniform to have a holiday? When we first started home educating, I used to feel guilty when we had downtime at home. I had this frenetic urge to ensure the girls were always occupied. How little I knew. Over the years I have learned that learning takes place not in the form of a rigid timetable, but in peaks and troughs. Many days are hugely productive, but sometimes  B will just need to lie on her bed and read quietly, or tinker on the piano, or run on the beach. Rest is valuable, and in the age of always being ON, it is a valuable to teach our children that doing nothing or being quiet is ok. We are not robots.

B is still adjusting to learning more on her own now that M is at school. Her relationship with the two little ones is lovely to watch, and she enjoys playing with them. Over the last few weeks, B has been immersed in a local youth theatre production. Watching her confidently run about the stage, A and I were bursting with pride. The little girl who sobbed behind her xylophone during school plays a few years ago has grown into an enthusiastic performer. Next week she takes another singing exam and performs in a dance show. Her watercolour paintings are many and varied, and she has done an in-depth history project with her dad. A has the kids every Tuesday, and it has been positive for everyone; I escape to work, he steps away from his business and the girls hang out with their dad. Walks with Grandad feature heavily, as does sewing with Grannie. B’s maths is well up to speed, and any spare moments are spent with her head in a book. The other day a friend phoned her, and she squirrelled herself away for a a giggly chat in the bedroom. Confident, friendly, sociable and interested. The words could be applied to both of the older girls, so different but both making their own ways in the world.

Little M, currently not attending reception year at school, continues to embrace her little forest nursery. She has done a project on cats and is starting to read cvc words and write her own sentences. We don’t know what will happen next year, but I am happy to keep my little 4-year old away from school for now. Time to play and time to just be is working for now. She and baby F spell trouble and they can’t wait for the day when they share bunk beds. I’m not keen to release baby F from the cot yet, but that day is not very far away.

So a bit of an update on where we all are. In my heart I am happy that M enjoys school, but I wish mainstream education was different. As B grows older and her educational needs become harder to meet, will school work for her or will we find a way on our own? I love this journey, it challenges and engages me and forces me to ask questions. Just what education should do…

photo-4

Am I missing the point?

Life is busy, and whilst B continues to benefit from home education, M is asserting her independence and heading off to school every morning. I’ll confess to not having missed the school run at all during my three-year absence from formal education, and the 8am dash has gained no appeal! As the frost settles over the final few leaves on the ground, the additional need for hats and gloves threatens to throw my best laid plans into disarray. M is still bouncing into school, and though I have noticed little comments about enjoying lying in at the weekend creep into conversation, I think she is still in a honeymoon phase, delighted to have something to call her own.

I had hoped that seeing my child skip into school would be enough, and many of you will argue that it should be. But after years of researching alternative education models and learning with the girls, not to mention my experience as a class teacher, I am feeling frustrated by the one-size-fits-all approach I see on offer for M. Arguably, she has had an advantageous start academically, with one to one support and plenty of time to explore her interests. That aside, it is clear to us and to her class teacher that M is capable of working well beyond the year 2 curriculum. At a recent parent/teacher meeting we discussed this, having been shown her targets for the next term, which were unambitious and already achieved in some cases. The teacher agreed that the work was not presenting much challenge and said she would speak to the head. This morning the message came back that M must be assessed within the year 2 curriculum. This seems inflexible, especially given the fact that M is in a mixed year 2/3 class. My response to the class teacher was that this system seemed to benefit the teachers, but not necessarily the students. The progress being shown on the grids will satisfy Ofsted, but it is not real progress.She explained that consolidation within her own year group was the answer. Now I know there is truth in this, but perhaps that is also an easier option for the school. It is important for M to be presented with a certain level of challenge in order to be inspired to learn and move forward. When she is in school for over thirty hours each week, I want that time to be stimulating.

I welcome the community events, the concerts, the trips, the visitors. I am pleased she has developed some nice friendships. It’s great that she looks forward to scampi on a Friday. But is this really what education has come down to? Friends tells me that school is just a starting point, that much more learning can take place at home. I agree. M comes home from school and devours number challenges,  plays the piano, taps out French phrases on Duolingo, reads books. It’s home ed all over again. She is busy and full of questions all the time and we want to support her learning.

I worry that I am overthinking the issue. M will probably thrive anyway in the long run. She’s clever, sparky, and confident. I can see friends wondering why I don’t give myself a break and be grateful for the childcare. On much reflection, I can only think  it is the unfairness of it all that frustrates me so much. When I was training to be a teacher ten years ago, Every Child Mattered. That was the buzz phrase. Now, Every Result Matters, and that is not the same at all.

We have two brilliant friends with three daughters. M and their youngest share a birthday. Their approach to parenting is similar to ours, they are busy and buzzy, sociable and curious. I texted her last week expressing my frustration that M was not being stretched enough, knowing that she had had similar issues with her second daughter. Their response had been to move her to the local private school, where she thrives. Their youngest is also bright, and is doing brilliantly at the local state primary, working mainly a couple of years ahead in a mixed class of KS1 kids. So two points here: state education can meet the needs of more able kids with a little thought and flexibility. But, also, there is a clear disparity between the education on offer for our brighter children, and this is down to the importance placed by the government on testing a narrow curriculum, and a lack of funding to provide extra staff and resources in state schools.

M’s teacher suggested that she might have a project to work on alongside the year 2 curriculum. I welcome project-based learning because I think it ignites individual passions and encourages independent research and creativity. Surely a return to this would offer a more rounded education for our children, whilst nurturing those key skills required for success – the strict learning objectives attached to the curriculum leave little room for imagination and independent, explorative learning.

So tell me, am I missing something? If your kid is bright do you just top up the learning at home? Do you accept that large class sizes, endless targets and depleted funds make meeting individual’s needs impossible? I remember sitting in the park one day when B was still at school, mulling over the prospect of home education. I commented that the school was not meeting her special needs. What special needs?, asked a suspicious mother. I had just meant B’s particular needs, not Special Needs, but it seems it is not fashionable now to recognise individuality. Schools produce children who can be defined by a number, and those who don’t match the boxes on the grid are squeezed in until they fit. Isn’t it time to consider a more fluid approach to education? If social mobility is not to fall completely by the wayside, it is vital that every child, wherever they are educated, is offered a chance to shine.

 

Back into the box

M has leapt into school with her characteristic optimism and energy, declaring that every day is ‘ten out of ten’, especially when scampi is on the lunch menu. A and I, meanwhile, are gritting our teeth and wondering whether the honeymoon period will end.

On the plus side, M is enjoying being with other children and has done activities we couldn’t easily offer at home, like rugby,samba dancing, and a fantastic session with an author and illustrator. She has also joined the school choir – the main reason she asked to go to school in the first place. But enrichment activities such are outnumbered by the sheer volume of formal learning that takes place for much of the day. Gone are the days of lying on cushions in the lounge devouring library books, now we have ‘Grammar Hammer’, spellings and reading schemes. Instead of running down the street with a tape measure trying to work out how long a diplodocus is, M is writing lists of number sentences in a book. After school one day this week, she reminded me of our dinosaur learning and asked for some more to do; it was brilliant watching her running around the house with a tape measure, inquisitive and hungry to learn.

I’ve taken a long look at myself and questioned if the issue might not be school, but the fact that I have lost a little control of the situation. Certainly there’s an element of the control freak in me somewhere. But I think I can say honestly that this is not the problem. If M was at school, learning in a less formal manner and with more space to breathe, I can only hope I would be extremely grateful that someone was taking care of my child and giving me the opportunity to focus on something else for a few hours each day.

One of the problems, from my point of view, is that the work presents very little challenge. I resent my child spending hours each day ‘learning’ something she already knows. What is the point? This week, we sat together to read the book she had been sent home. It was a reading scheme story – repetitive and leaving little room for the imagination to run wild. These books have a place – they are designed to teach children to read, which is why they are repetitive, to reinforce key words. But M can already read. She learned to read two years ago. Surely her time would be much better spent playing with her sisters or reading a book of her own choice? After over six hours in school, does a six year old really need more ‘work’ to do at home? On a recent visit to her classroom, M showed me the lovely book corner, and I was relieved when a teaching assistant told me they do get time to just read. Not so pleased when she started telling me how packed the school day is and how little time there is these days just for the children to BE. If the staff are saying that, surely it’s time for a rethink.

Chatting to a friend about all this, she sympathised but said that school had been great for her daughter, who had lacked confidence and benefited from the reinforcement of key learning principles. I can see her point, but also have to question whether more confidence might be instilled in our kids if they were not put under pressure to achieve the same targets as every other child their age and pass so many tests.

And so it goes on; I overthink education until I lose sight of what my question was. I’m sure many parents would say ‘Look. M is happy. She’s getting all of her work done. Get over yourself.’ But I’ve seen another side of learning, and I know our schools could offer a better education if we got rid of the standardised testing and revisited the skills our children really need to acquire to succeed in the 21st century.

The best I can take from the situation for now is that M is making some nice friends and keeping busy.  There is nothing to be achieved from bursting her bubble and insisting that I know best, because maybe I don’t. If I dig deep down, I understand her need to be around other people: that is my need too. I only wish she could find that social buzz another way, because now I have seen how children can learn more freely, I’m finding it hard to climb back into the box.

Sharing the load

The arguments against grammar schools are well-known and have been revisited with gusto this week, following the Prime Minister’s proposal to increase their number in England.

Whilst research shows that the attainment gap between children eligible for free school meals and those not eligible is smaller in selective schools at GCSE, the fact remains that this is a very small number of children (about 11 each year in each grammar school, according to BBC Reality Check). Teresa May declares that there will be more grammar school places for children from poorer families, which is to be welcomed, but you have to wonder how she will combat the ‘teaching to the test’ that takes place amongst wealthier families. How can less privileged children compete with those kids that receive private tuition for up to a year preceding the entrance exam? One option is for primary schools to offer free tuition outside of the school timetable (how this would be implemented is another story, with teachers already stretched way beyond what is realistically possible to achieve in a school day). But I am not here to be a cheerleader for selective schooling, because the question will always remain – what about those children who don’t get in?

I enjoyed reading Jonathan Freedland‘s take on selective schooling today. I felt that he opened up an honest debate about what schools mean to parents. It is easy to be churlish and take vicious swipes at grammar schools if you believe, as I do, that education should be offered on a more level playing field. But as Freedland rightly points out, ‘most human beings will always seek the very best education for their children, and that’s perfectly natural’. Today, my 10-year old nephew sits his entrance exam for a grammar school, and I wish only wonderful things for him. He has worked tremendously hard to prepare for the exam and deserves to do well. And therein lies the problem: we all want the best for the children we love, which is why every child must have the chance to succeed, not just the privileged few. It is not fair to pass judgement on parents who seek grammar school places for their kids – most of us would do the same given the chance. I can sit cosily in judgment in Northumberland knowing that grammar schools are not an option for my children, but Freedland is right to say that we need a system that ‘works for the collective good’.

To me, this means developing a truly collaborative education system, where academic prowess sits alongside practical skills and holds equal value. We need to be brave enough, too, to admit that all those parent with sharp elbows should be working with less influential and less vocal parents in order to offer the very best to each and every child. The playwright, Alan Bennett, was heavily criticised in 2014 for suggesting that ‘private education is not fair. Those who provide it know it. Those who pay for it know it. Those who have to sacrifice in order to purchase it know it. And those who receive it know it, or should.’ This comment was deemed radical and provocative, but Bennett speaks the truth. Rather than segregating children based on their wealth or their academic ability, why not pool resources and offer every child the same opportunities? It is simple and obvious, yet it has never been taken seriously as a solution to social mobility because it will mean such a huge shift in the status quo. The trickle-down effect of changing educational provision so dramatically would be greater social cohesion, and an opportunity for us all to reconsider what success actually means. It would take ambitious vision, a stretch of imagination and generosity of spirit to make it work. Are we up for the challenge?

 

Grammatically incorrect

Oh grammar schools, rearing your ugly head again! This week we are deafened by the sound of teachers girding their loins to battle with the government over its proposal not only to reintroduce grammar schools, but to allow other schools to be selective as well.

Despite the Education Secretary’s insistence that this is about offering parents more choice, there is no denying that it can only drive more of a wedge between the haves and the have-nots. Justine Greening informs us that in order to ‘take education into the 21st century’, grammar schools will offer a higher proportion of places to children from lower income families. I can’t help but feel that we creating a huge slope on an already very uneven playing field. What happens to the children who are left behind – those who fail the test, or are not even deemed able enough to try in the first place? What message are we giving these children? This obsession with testing seems to me a perpetuation of the survival of the fittest, where those who don’t fit the traditional model of ‘success’ are dismissed as second rate. Important, too, to question whether our tests are fit for purpose – more from Michael Rosen on this.

I return to how we view success in our schools. It seems to me that we spend so much time measuring progress and checking levels, that children are given very little space to breathe and explore their own interests. We are very stressed about knowing exactly where a child’s learning is in relation to their age, as if we should all be developing in the same way at the same time. From the very small sample I encounter as a home educator (4!), as well as in my experience as a class teacher, I can tell you that this is a fallacy. It took me many months to relax and trust that my children would learn without me forcing workbooks in front of them. More selection means more testing and less actual learning. Seth Godin writes succinctly on this, about free-range learning generating resilience. We are terrified to accept this because we can’t measure it, but I assure you it is true.

 

If, as a society, we accept more selective schools, we are simply saying that we want to nurture clever children who can pass tests, because despite the proposed extra places for poorer children, they will still face an uphill battle against wealthier children who receive private tuition to prepare for the entrance exam. In order to truly modernise our education system, we need to respect the fact that each child is very different. We need to offer an inclusive education for all. It must be about more than testing. The government needs to be braver and allow teachers the space and the freedom within the school day to experiment and be creative. When Justine Greening talks about ‘outstanding’ schools, she means schools that get good test results.’Outstanding’ should mean more than that: it should mean allowing each child to stand out as an individual.

 

Back to school…or not

Today, M went back to school. After a few weeks of ‘trying it out’ before the summer break, she has gone into year 2 – a fully fledged schoolgirl. She has talked about going back to school since term ended, and this morning declared she would burst because she was so excited. So different to her older sister! We arrived at the school to a wall of noise, with parents and school staff bumping into each other and ferrying children down corridors. It is usually a very organised and calm school, but this morning it felt chaotic and extremely busy. A little girl was crying with her mum as she said goodbye and I felt that mother’s pain – been there so many times! M bounded through the doorway and turned the corner out of sight, eager to reach her new classroom. I was relieved things went smoothly for us, but horrified to think how things might have mapped out had B been going back today as well. The chatter reverberating around the hall, the crowds of people and the change in routine would all have made her cower and recoil. So lovely to return home to a daughter with a smile on her face instead.

B will continue to learn at home following last term’s fairly disastrous school experiment. Little M, only 4 a couple of months ago, will also learn at home. Legally she is not required to be in ‘full-time education’ until next September, although her peers have all entered reception class today. Little M will carry on exploring in the woods at her little forest nursery twice a week, and after that we will see. Baby F is almost 2, loud and energetic, and  will join her sister at nursery for a couple of mornings when in a year or so.

Yesterday I returned as a teacher to the SEMH (Social Emotional Mental Health) school in County Durham. It was good to be back amongst the staff, and I’m looking forward to using my home ed resources with the kids when I see them next week. Despite the mountains of grids and plans I trawled through and cross-referenced yesterday, at the end of the day these kids want some structure, some kindness and some fun. The paperwork is not for them. I enjoy working in this challenging sector, but I’m not sure I could return to mainstream education having learned what I have about since working with my own kids at home.

I have mixed feelings about today. I am glad to see M happy and full of excitement. She needs to be busy and is a sociable creature. I want her to be challenged and fulfilled. I want the teacher to see her shiny eyes and inspire her, to take her on journeys that lead to more questions and wonderful creations. I don’t want her to come home, as she did last term, saying she hates maths because of all the copying, or to be too tired to read the books she loves. I think I need to see school for M as somewhere she goes to be with her friends. If I start to think about the one-size-fits-all-ness of it, or the reading schemes, or the hymn-singing, or the attendance certificates, I feel frustrated. Perhaps it is unfair too – M’s teacher might be wonderful and take her on a brilliant learning journey. Let’s hope so. School is her choice, and perhaps I don’t know best.

This summer we built lego towns, leaped through the waves, collected leaves, had long-jump competitions on the beach, played the piano, wrote poems, baked cakes, created a ‘Teddy Olympics’, read books and then more books, visited the library, went on picnics, sang songs, studied maps and dreamed of living in a camper van, visited family all over the country, studied dinosaurs in museums, raced bikes up and down the back lane…the list goes on. Hopefully this new term will be just as productive, but we will miss having M in our little tribe. Here’s to a happy autumn for everyone, wherever they choose to be.