It all started with that blog post I wrote last week about how desperately I feel the kids should have broken up from school by now, the importance of long summer holidays (in the light of recent government suggestions of four week summer holiday) and the pressure that school and homework can put on young families.
The big response I got from many of you, including friends of friends on Facebook, showed me that I’m not alone in my feeling that the academic expectations of our primary-aged children is denying them their childhood.
Then a few days later, with impeccable timing, the UK government announced the latest reforms to the school curriculum. The news landed on my virtual mat with a thud; it felt like someone had handed me a mud pie when I’d asked for chocolate cake.
Mr Gove, our current education secretary, disliked by every teacher I’ve mentioned the name to, has decided to make the curriculum ‘rigorous, engaging and tough’ and bring academic rigour back into learning.
I don’t doubt that this might be needed for certain subjects at secondary level, like history, but introducing the concept of fractions and decimal points to 5 year olds? Asking 9 year olds to learn science concepts and phrases that the best performing countries don’t expect until aged 11? To quote MacEnroe, the famous New Yorker tennis player ‘You can’t be serious?”
Sadly they are. All too serious. And why? To secure our future in the global economy where we’re lagging behind, apparantly. We need to catch up with the world’s best education systems like Finland and Singapore, they tell us.
In short, its all about money, in particular, economic performance as a nation.
But here’s the rub: these countries don’t even start putting their children in formal education till they’re 7 (in Finland) and don’t start to teach many subjects that we do for one, sometimes two years after we currently do in England.
What???!! Yes, really. According to Prof Terry Wigley of Leeds University (see ‘Gove Primary Curriculum Abolishes Childhood‘). If he’s not right, please let me know, but it doesn’t surprise me. The thing he said that grabbed me most in this article was “These countries do not achieve high standards by cramming young children too early. This is the Pied Piper curriculum: it abolishes childhood.”
That might sound very extreme, and the government of course, derided it. But I don’t think it is. I feel their childhood is being already being eroded by the current system, let alone one that is even more rigourous. Heaven forbid.
The whole thing makes me feel sick in the stomach. Really. I’m not exaggerating. I’ve just read my six and nine year old school reports this evening, and what hits me most is how advanced their learning is, the concepts and ideas they’re supposed to understand at their tender age. I mean, I wasn’t expected to understand how ‘to write for a range of genres and different audiences’ when I was nine. And it might surprise you that I’m concerned when both of them got incredibly good reports; they are doing very well at reaching these high standards. But it comes at a cost – I see how exhausted they are and how much, if asked, they would rather be learning at a more relaxed pace.
Sometimes I feel like my daughter is expected to behave like an 11 year old in first year of secondary school in terms of maturity and focus. This is not a criticism of her school, which is an excellent, caring, small state-school in a mixed, but fairly affluent area. It’s the sheer amount of work that the teachers have to plough through that I feel can squeeze out the element of fun that a 6 and 9 year old child should enjoy at this age. Small wonder the occasional pouting face and subsequent melt down after school.
Cameron was quoted as saying “This is what every parent wants” and described it as a “revolution in education“. I can’t speak for the secondary school curriculum, but sorry, Prime Minister, not every parents wants this. Far from it. Every parent wants their child to learn to read, write, add up, learn to get on well with their peers and environment but above all, to have fun, play, yes, dare I say it, play, and use their enquiring little minds to explore the world around them without pressure to do this, sit still, be here, stop that. (Take a breath, Siobhan, take a breath…)
And as for a revolution in education? Do you have any idea what revolution means? The only re-volving thing I can see is the way in which you have turned away from listening to the experts, and turned back to the way things were in grammar school days; a system that favoured those who learnt best through rote, facts and figures and exams.
A revolution in education, to my mind, would be one where the boys get to learn on the go, rise to challenges, be taught by men as well as women, and be given freedom to explore and ask why. These things can be done. Progressive schools are starting to embrace these ideas and throwing open the doors for primary school aged kids to learn outside.
Yes, Blighty is clearly going to struggle to keep up with the newly emergent Asian economies, based on a myriad of cultural and historical reasons, but asking 5 year olds to do computer programming is not going to radically change this. Aside from that, are we not allowed, as a country to be who we are – British, not Asian? I’d waiger that most British parents are not aggressive highly ambitious ‘tiger mums’ who think studying is the be all and end all of a child’s life. I remember my 14 year old twin brother bemoaning the fact around the Christmas dinner table that his class rival, the Chinese boy who he would come second too in most subjects, was probably sitting at home studying!
And then this morning, when I turned on the radio, my jaw nearly dropped on the floor when I heard that experts were suggesting Heads ban packed lunches because they are too unhealthy. The orange juice started to spill over the edge of the glass as shook my head in disbelief, wondering if my hearing had gone askew overnight…. Ok, so yes, many parents across the country do chuck junk food in their kids packed lunches – my son often complains that certain boys get crisps “every day, Mummy!” – but spare me, please, from a Packed Lunch Patrol. My kids actually get a better diet when they have packed lunch (2 days a week – they love their school dinners) as on those days they don’t have the high GI sweet puddings that they serve up every day. Yes, they may offer fruit or yoghurt alternative, but you’re not going to chose that when you’re 6 & 9 years of age, now are you?
Sorry, I’m ranting too much. Maybe its all this heat.
Before you switch off, let me tell you about the next piece of Education Pie from my week, which is full of hope and bravery, and brought me up nice and proper in my grumblings. Malala. The incredibly brave 16 yr old who was shot by the Taliban for being a champion of girls education and rights in Afghanistan. On Friday she turned 16, and to mark her birthday, she spoke at a special youth session at the UN, calling for education for all by 2015. With 57 million children around the world not receiving an education that’s a tall order, but with help from the likes of former PM Gordon Brown, now UN Special Envoy for Education, who organised this Special Youth session, (yes, he does amazing good work but the media rarely publicise it) she is doing more to help achieve this Millennium Development Goal than many others. Join her in the struggle, if you agree, by reading signing the campaign on Action Aid’s website.
It is certainly sobering that we seem to have such an imbalance in this world that in the same week as Malala and the many other youth (including 500,000 British youth) are demanding certain governments ensure girls (and boys) to be educated at all, parents in one small corner of the world are worrying that their government is sucking the joy out of children’s lives by over-educating them too early.
I did wonder if I had the right to feel so upset and concerned in the light of this herculean task ahead of these wonderful youth. But on reflection I realised that neither issue has the moral high ground. The Call for Action for education by Malala is of course, most urgent and most pressing, there is no doubt, but crippling children too young with too much formalised learning can actually hinder their development, and the all round happiness of their families and so deserves some attention.
Lastly, In response to my post last week, a fellow parent blogger, Judith, who writes in Secrets of the Sandpit, pointed me in the direction of her wonderful thinking-outside-the-box blog post series called A Clean Slate, where she is encouraging us to rethink what education should look like. Fantastic. I know there’s some of you out there who’d have wonderful things to contribute (you’ve already shared them with me here!) so pop over and take part. Jane – you know where to go!!
And lastly, lastly, really….you might like to know that after meeting with our school’s head this week, who is new to the school, I found out that homework is NOT a statutory requirement and that primary schools do NOT have to set it. She is working our school toward a more creative approach to homework, starting with a review and consultation in the new school year. How fantastic is that? So, go talk to your heads and start a conversation….!
So, what do you all think? Am I being over concerned? Have I got my facts right, even? What’s your feeling, everyone? Or should I just go and chill out with a large glass of cold Pimms….?
Sources: (sorry, its all BBC news online)
Curriculum Changes to Catch up with the Worlds Best, 8 July 2013, BBC news
Gove Primary Curriculum Abolishes Childhood, 11 July 2013, BBC news online
Head Teachers Urged to Ban Packed Lunches, 12 July 2013
Shot Pakistan school girl, Malala Yousafzai, addresses UN, 12 July 2013 – BBC news online