Monday, 23 May 2016

Bring Joy Back into the Classroom

My eldest son has a passion for general knowledge. He can make educated guesses when watching university challenge (and even gets the odd question right), knows his way around an ordnance survey map, and can play Vivaldi by ear on the piano. He has a wide vocabulary and a natural inquisitiveness that has filled his head with a remarkable assortment of facts and figures on all manner of subjects - football, local history, architecture, bridges, the British rail network, to name just a few.

Yet in the eyes of the education system, this is a 12 year old who is utterly average, even 'failing', destined, it would seem, to forever fall short of government expectation about what constitutes a successful learning experience. Unable to somehow quite reach attainment levels during his primary years, school was not always the joyous experience for him that I remember of my own school days. Instead, those initial years in the education system trundled by, punctuated with frequent moments of worry, frustration and head scratching. It seemed the child we thought was bright and engaged, was, if we were to follow the criteria set down by the 'system', headed for the dole office. 

I got very angry with 'the system'. I got annoyed - no doubt unfairly - with the teachers. I also got very upset for my boy, a child with my natural tendency to sensitivity and need for frequent reassurance and encouragement. I became acutely aware that the language of failure has crept into the landscape of education, and that children are ever more aware of their short-comings. By the end of his time at primary school both he and us were quite clear on the fact that our son didn't meet the one-size-fits-all criteria.

As someone who comes from a family of teachers - my mother taught at primary and my grand-parents were teachers - the transformations that have occurred in education during my lifetime trouble me greatly. It saddens me to see my own children's school life become so prescriptive, weighed down with rules and regulations, with the constant need for 'attainment' placed above all other concerns - social, emotional and creative development, for example, as well as the opportunity to develop and thrive at one's own pace, not the pace set down by policy makers in Whitehall. 

Put quite simply, it seems the joy has been sucked out of the classroom. There's no spontaneity, no time for swerving just a little off course and doing something a bit fun, a bit different. The constant pressure of preparing children for phonics tests, SATs tests and other near-constant attainment tests leaves precious time for giving children a voice in the classroom. I remember lots of opportunities for informal chatting at primary school - sharing holiday experiences after the summer break, coming in to school bursting with excitement at having found out something new and being encouraged to share it with the class. But in today's classroom, that rarely seems to happen - even show and tell seems to be a quietly expiring tradition.

So, with most of the fun stuff having left the building some time ago, the life of today's primary school child seems a pretty pressurised one, while teachers are left frazzled by huge amounts of paperwork and number crunching to fit into their day. Heads have become business managers, rarely freed of the tyranny of the spreadsheet to do much in the way of interaction with their charges. So different to my primary school headmaster, a gregarious man who liked to tinkle on the piano when the mood took him and had a penchant for calligraphy - he'd frequently spend his lunch hours lovingly engraving our names on our plastic lunch boxes. Imagine a headmaster having time to do that now!

It is, of course, easy to look back on our school days through a romanticised filter, but I'm sure teachers were more present back then, more engaged with the everyday machinations of school life. But they simply don't have time nowadays. There's no allowance for getting to know the kids a little better by running an after school club (these tend to be entirely outsourced to external companies) or for physically being in the classroom more often (today's pressurised teacher does much of their planning during the school day, so there may be pretty long periods when they're not actually teaching in the classroom.) It's not in any way their fault but simply another symptom of a system that places results tables above the idea that education should be fun, fulfilling and individualistic. Teachers are expected to churn out children who attain government expected criteria at exactly the same time, with no thought for a child's individual rate of maturity or their background. 

And so we have unhappy teachers and unhappy children. Rates of depression and anxiety in primary school children have risen sharply, surely aided by the ever-present burden of academic assessment that begins pretty much the moment they enter Reception. It's no wonder, then, that more and more children are reaching young adulthood worn down by never feeling good enough, their self-esteem and confidence knocked by years of testing and assessment. And on leaving school we expect these poor, fragile creatures to make their way in a working world that's never been more fiercely competitive - the system does a great job of building children filled with self-assurance, optimism and confidence in their abilities so that they are prepared to embrace life beyond the school gates. Not...

Is there not time enough to become familiar with the burden of stress and competitiveness...i.e. when you're in a job? Of course school has the important function of preparing children for the real world - with all its harsh realities - but how can we expect young adults to feel a sense of value and purpose as they embark on their careers if they've always fallen short of test expectations? 

I feel so sad when I read Facebook posts about friends' children losing sleep over their SATs or generally struggling with the pressures of school. I know how easy it is to become obsessed with monitoring your child's progress, comparing them to their classmates and heaping on yet more pressure with tutoring and SATs revision books. At my son's football tournament recently I watched a poor child - a sibling of one of the team members - huddled away in a corner, dutifully glued to their SATs revision. There was no watching from the sidelines and cheering their brother on. Perhaps they didn't want to, but I doubt very much they wanted to be stuck indoors on a sunny day, learning the difference between modal verbs and transitive verbs.

So, at what price academic success (oh rather, academic success as measured by the current system, which will no doubt be changed a few years down the line)? What about the cost to us all when a generation of burnt-out children grow into adults with mental health problems that stop them working and weigh heavily on an already delicate NHS (treating mental health conditions currently costs the NHS£9.5 billion a year)? Surely we'd rather our kids read a book, kick a ball around and socialise with friends than have to know the unfathomable intricacies of the English language at the age of 11? Why has the government lost sight of the fact that learning should feed not just the mind but the soul too, spark the imagination and fill children with joy and wonder? 

Unfortunately there's not much we can do about changing the system on a day-to-day level. But perhaps, as parents, we can pull on the brakes a little. I've written about slowing life down a gear or two before, but I think we can all perhaps assess our own attitudes to home learning from time to time. Do we really need to keep up with the parent down the road who's coaching their child in extra maths and English at age 7, does 'home learning' need to be quite so prescriptive or can we find other, more fun ways to educate our little ones - learning how to animate, perhaps, keeping an ant colony or working out how to code...

Of course our children will need to be tested during their lives, we all understand that, but let's not succumb to a collective panic about testing that leads so many parents to heap even more pressure on their children. Let's let them enjoy their precious primary school years, and celebrate in their talents away from the classroom. My 'average' son delights us with his creativity, his music playing and his wide and varied interests. I doubt he'll ever be brilliant at maths, but that's okay - there's a reason why calculators were invented. He'll find his way, whatever his test papers might say, because he has his parents' love and encouragement. And that can go a very long way.

So here's to all the 'average' children out there, and their parents - you're doing an awesome job. 


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