My year so far has been shabby. 2017 did not bring the fresh start I had been promised, instead dragging remnants of a messy 2016 over its threshold and whipping up fresh mayhem. For a time I have felt bleak and vulnerable, struggling to combat the crap life has thrown at me. This week, though, a curious shift has occurred, an energy glows somewhere inside me and I’m ready to fight back.

The sense that I can choose my own life comes as a huge relief after many weeks of feeling     cocooned in some dark, stubborn world. The contradictions that inform my character have never been far away: I have been restless but needed stability, emotional but unable to communicate. I had been too much in my head, overwhelmed by personal challenges, and as a result I had lost sight of the here and now.

Trundling from day to day, I have continued to home educate B, little M and baby F, whilst M has been at school. It has never felt right having one of our tribe elsewhere, but it has suited me to see M reasonably happy and she wanted to know what school was all about. My initial allergic reaction to her new and very different educational experience had to be diluted if only to save my sanity. I have tried hard, with M, to be positive about school. And it’s not all bad. There have been some good moments. But she can do better. And we should be doing better for her.

While life has picked me up and tossed me around, I have chosen to put M’s deregistration to the back of mind. Or certainly further from the front. But almost a year has passed now. My little girl is nearly 7. We have created a life where she can learn freely, be outside as much as she likes and just be a child. If the last few months have taught me anything, it’s that I am not perfect, but I am doing my best and I should have the confidence, once more, to step outside the box and do something brave.

Tonight we read a book about the universe and it blew M away. ‘It’s just so exciting!’ she breathed. ‘I have too many questions! I can’t wait for the weekend so I can do some experiments!’.

Now is the time, as the air feels warmer against our faces and the blossom winks at us from the side of the road. Instinct tells me that a summer spent on the beach, painting galaxies, reading books, singing songs, asking questions and visiting exciting new places will be one worth remembering.

I’ve kept my side of the bargain, we’ve given school a go. But now it’s time to make the weekend last a little longer.



A mother

It’s been a month of marching, head down, against the cruel weather that life throws at you from time to time. I’ve been followed by storm clouds that have threatened to engulf me, and woke from an awful dream last night where I was suffocating.

When life gets tricky, a gulp of fresh air is essential. It’s amazing how a few hours out in the spring breeze can soothe nerves and restore calm. Today I loaded my tribe of girls into the car and we drove out to Wallington, the stunning home to a bunch of bohemian socialists, the Trevelyans.

Feeling trapped inside my head, the wide expanses of Northumbrian landscape provided the perfect antidote. I  am usually drawn to the beach, only minutes from our home, when searching for solace. Today, though, we headed west, up into the hills. You can still see the sea from the heights of the national park, and today was clear and bright blue, broken up only by the aeroplane trails cutting through the sky.

For much of the journey, weaving around the bends and dipping up and down hills, we trailed an ambulance. M, especially, was fascinated by the flashing blue light – it has been her dream for several years to become a paramedic, and she chatted about what the ambulance might be doing. Imagine her delight when an air ambulance loomed into view in a field alongside the road, although we all hoped for a happy outcome for the poor cyclist lying on the verge.

Minutes later we drove into Wallington. It’s one of our favourite places, and since M went to school, we have avoided going there without her if possible because it’s just too special for her to miss.

Today was all about scones in the sun, clambering over dragons, marvelling at a narwhal’s horn, and hide and seek behind the trees.

Often, it is easy to miss the simple pleasures that come hand in hand with motherhood. There’s all the slog – the nappy changing, the night feeds, the clearing up, the endless mess. And there’s the guilt that you should be doing something else, clinging onto the person you were before you were a parent, or making plans for life when they are not babies any more. Sometimes, with home education, I feel that our time must have more purpose – a throwback from my teacher training.

But today it felt amazing to just wrap baby F’s arms around my neck and stand still, as she pushed her cheek against mine. It felt perfect to lift little M up to a branch so she could stroke clusters of furry new leaves. M leapt and ran, noticing everything and grabbing at life. And B was at home, as she always is when she is outside, listening to birds and inventing worlds.

I watched all of this, and after weeks of my mind feeling tangled and agonised, it was the relief I needed to just enjoy being a mother. I realised that the four little girls, running across the lawn, clutching hands in a line, was the tonic I needed.


M clung to me, wrapping her skinny legs around my waist and crying noisily into my neck. Her sisters wanted to sit quietly and listen to an audio book, but M wanted to play. Half-term has come to an end and the girls have squeezed every last drop out of it, playing together from first light in the morning until they flop onto our duvet for a story at bedtime.

Earlier today, B sidled up to me with red cheeks signalling that tears were not far away. Transition is hard for B, and I’d been waiting for the inevitable meltdown as she pondered the return of her little sister to school. M is not sentimental: she can be very thoughtful, but she brushes away emotional baggage, always looking forward to the next thing on her agenda. I’ll never know if M’s little breakdown today meant that she was feeling sad that our lovely week had come to a close. She may wear her heart on her sleeve, but she rarely admits to any wobble in her strong facade – a feisty little contradiction.

On Wednesday we will attend our ‘assertive mentoring’ session with M’s teacher. A can barely say the phrase ‘assertive mentoring’ without using an expletive; M can’t say it at all. It’s basically a parent/teacher meeting but with the added joy of meaningless targets and highlighted grids. I hate how cynical I sound, but at the last meeting, M’s targets were pointless, being achievable for her in the 15 mins we spent discussing them. Anyway, A and I agreed that we would see how this meeting goes before leaping to any drastic decisions about M’s education. I am the queen of drastic decisions, famous for changing my mind three times in the space of a minute as my brain flicks from one erratic conclusion to another. A is the opposite, requiring weeks of thinking time. I call him a conservative socialist – radically leftwing in his thinking, but he has to talk everything through rather than leaping in head first.

It has been good for me to work to a slower timetable – we really don’t want to screw this decision up. Sometimes I kick myself for re-entering the bear pit that is mainstream education, but my mum reminds me that if M hadn’t given school a go, she would still be nagging us now and wondering what all the fuss is about. We have done what we have always tried to do as parents – listen to our daughter. It might have backfired slightly, but I’m confident we can regroup and move forward  – stronger and wiser as a family.

I am interested in democratic education, where children have a voice and take control of their learning. It’s what we believe in as a home educating family. The word ‘democracy’ has become tainted for me by its shoddy usage in post-Brexit politics. Lumped in with ‘will of the people’, its meaning is losing value to me. In today’s ugly, cruel world, democracy feels exasperatingly far-removed from our lives. Next week we are taking the girls on a March for Europe. M is excited about having her say. She is making a banner saying ‘Brexit Smells’. Which sums it up nicely I think.


So as M bobs across the park to school, at home we will be busy as usual. Little M and I are making word games and attempting to read a book about bats. B is finalising her song choices for her Grade 3 singing exam, then tackling a number investigation about volume, based on a chart she wants to make to ensure we are all are drinking enough water. Baby F will be making mischief. I hope I’ll find time to sit at the piano and play, as I’ve been doing more often recently, and try some of that slow thinking that A recommends…

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…


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.