Pre my children’s school days, I imagined getting your child’s school report as a moment of great pride. When your children are first born, are these brand new personalities, unmarked by time and the world and other people saying ‘oh, is he not crawling yet?’, there is no room for comparisons or what they ‘should’ be doing at a certain age. You’re too overwhelmed by the sparkling newness of them, the sheer miraculousness of their tiny perfection. Sadly, this does not last; you’re still overwhelmed by their perfection, but you also become interested in milestones. You pretend you have no interest at all, but really you do. Are they rolling over, sitting, talking, walking when they should? Are they displaying the hallmarks of everything they are and everything you want them to be? And society’s expectations of parents, and especially mothers, start to rise their ugly heads: are you developing them enough? Are you restricting screen time, going to play groups, reading endless hours of stories? And, innocently, you believe absolutely in their genius, in how clever and able and wonderful they are, and you look forward to them going to school so that their teachers can prove this genius, this specialness, this sheer amazingness, to you. Armed with this confidence and innocence, I imagined reading this school report full of glowing praise about my amazing child(ren) – because to me they are amazing. Amazing, perfect, clever little creatures that we made from scratch, who astound me every day with the things they say and do and ask and tell. It’s unfortunate, then, that in these rosy little daydreams I forgot that they are – and will always remain – these perfect little creatures, but in the wider scheme of things – and as part of an education system that insists upon it, they will always be compared against an awful lot of other perfect little creatures.
Everyone tells you, you see, not to compare. Teachers, (I’ve given that advice many a time and really meant it) friends (they don’t actually mean it; they’re secretly feeling relieved that your child’s handwriting is worse than theirs), your mum, those people on parenting forums who’ve just finished declaring to the entire world that their child has already completed the Oxford Reading Tree levels and they’re only four. And I do believe it – there is little point in comparing, because children are good at some things and not at others. Equally, sometimes they’re not very good at things one year and simply amazing at them the next. Children will make progress dependent on a very large number of factors: their teacher, their level of maturity, what you do with them at home, and simply whether they’re ready or whether they’re not. So of course I can see there’s no point in comparing – the trouble is that the education system does not see it this way at all. Why tell you there’s no point in comparing on the one hand, and pigeon hole your child through labels of their being above, at, or below age related expectations on the other?
This new system of age related expectations (as opposed to the old system of levels that the government decided wasn’t working so threw out with no consultation and even less guidance about what would be best for schools to use instead, leaving a large number of schools and an even greater number of parents floundering in its wake) is actually quite horrifying. And that’s before you even think about that it was just a way of the government tightening up standards (as they refer to it; changing the goalposts is how I think of it) and deciding that what had previously qualified as meeting age related expectations would suddenly be below, and what had previously been exceeding would suddenly be meeting. That leaves an awful lot of children floundering below, and an awful lot of teachers and senior leaders panicking about their data. The language itself is somewhat emotive; I first experienced it last year when child 1 finished reception (where they’ve always used this terminology) and was ‘below’ in reading, writing and maths. At the time, it was scant comfort that he was at the expected level in random areas that were never explained: ‘understanding of the world’ anyone? I just felt like a bit of a failure, frankly, that my child, my unique, lovely boy, was being written off as below age related expectations in the month he turned five. Was there any understanding, in these bleak words, that he was born at the very end of June and therefore was nine months younger than the children that established these ‘age related expectations’? Was there any acknowledgement, in these four words, that he has a fine motor control issue that would mean he could never, ever, at the age of five, reach age related expectations in writing? Was there, in fact, any recognition at all in these words that every child is a unique, special, magnificent little human being with a story – a reason – a set of facts – that make them below, or at, or above these bloody age related expectations? No, there were just words. There were some other lovely words from his teacher about what a lovely boy he is and how she would miss teaching him, but it was those ticked boxes I couldn’t leave behind.
A year later, and this time two reports featuring the same phrases. My experience of a year earlier made me dread them, quite frankly. I had no faith that the education system, as reflected through these two reports, would show anything complete about my children – anything about the complete story of these two unique human beings – the loves of my life. I feared that I wouldn’t recognise them, the daughter and son who have made our lives unrecognisable and who seem to me just as if they’ve always existed and that there was never a time without them. I had no hope they would reflect her kindness and his endless, questioning little mind; or the way she sits and writes out the number 8 and the number 5 over and over again with a delighted smile and a ‘I can do this now Mummy!’, or the way he creates whole new worlds with his Lego, or her fierce loyalty, or his wicked sense of humour, or the way she decided she was going to learn how to turn cartwheels and practised for an entire day until she could do it, or the way he reads for hour upon hour in bed at night. How could the report reflect any of this; this report that was going to reduce my children to four little emotive words? It would be too busy writing them off as below because she isn’t that good at maths, or hadn’t quite managed to get to the expected level of sounding out sentences and getting them from her head to the paper in front of her.
In the end, the reports differed greatly. Child 2’s was exactly as I had expected, meeting the expected levels in everything, and a lovely summative comment from her new teachers praising her for her effort and engagaement and behaviour, and, likeably, describing her as a charming little girl. That was my favourite part – the rest, dependent as it was on these four words, was fine. I’m proud of her all the time, my beautiful, well behaved, lovely girl who always tries so very hard and loves school very much, and I never expected anything more or less. (which does not take away from my pride in her) But the other report – that is a report that reflects absolutely the journey N has been on. It was a joy to read, scattered liberally as it was with phrases about rapid and significant progress and attentive listening and positivity and being a pleasure to teach. Most importantly, it was a different slant on the four dreaded words – being above age related expectations in reading and at – at! – in writing. When N entered year 1 it was a struggle for him to write at all, despite all the work his wonderful reception teachers had done. And now – after a year, and just a year, of working with an OH specialist and the specialist daily exercise and handwriting programme – he is where he should be in writing – and I am overwhelmed. We’ve had many, many joyful moments on what was often a frustrating and exhausting journey – but this was the best.
What this report reflected was a child who has overcome obstacles that most children do not have to face; many, many hours of his hard work at home; parents who were determined that he would not be held back by issues that were not of anyone’s making, an OH therapist who provided us with the tools we needed, a teaching assistant who helped and encouraged when he wouldn’t or couldn’t do it himself, and a wonderful teacher who encouraged, supported, and pushed him every step of the way, who took the time to see him as the bright, capable, engaged boy he always had the potential to be, and who took as much delight in the little steps of progress as we did. And so for this year – this report – this term – those little words did tell a story. They told the story of his success. And I will treasure it for ever.
Follow me on twitter – @randommusingsby