Where did it all go so wrong?

When my children first started school, I didn’t expect to find myself here – that one who rants all the time, that one who constantly reposts diatribes about the primary education system on Facebook when people probably just want to see pictures of their friends’ dogs and nice dinners out, that one who can’t shut up about the damage its all doing. To be honest, I didn’t give it much thought. I thought they’d go to school, and they’d enjoy it, and it would all be much like it was when I went to school. I remember primary school as fun. That’s it. I know we did work, but I don’t remember any pressure, or anyone ever mentioning a target, and I don’t remember a single formal test. Probably we had them, but the memories are lost in a haze of all the other days – when I learned and I had fun learning. 

But you see – it turns out it’s nothing like it was when I went to school. Now it seems to be very little except tests, and preparing them for tests, and endless monitoring of the progress they’re making and whether it’s enough and whether they’ll reach what is, really, a fairly arbitrary target. In reality, this means they spend their days mostly writing or being pressured to write or rewriting what they did earlier because it wasn’t good enough and it doesn’t show any progress. Meanwhile the poor teachers are run ragged filling out ridiculous amounts of paperwork to prove what they’ve done to make the children show this progress, having meetings to discuss this progress – or lack of it – and planning lessons that they don’t want to teach, and desperately trying to fit in a timetable of too many subjects in too little time. And being panicked that five year olds aren’t making enough progress and really, couldn’t they just read a story to them and enjoy it once in a while? And maybe let a science experiment run on a bit longer because hell, the kids are really into it and they’re getting more out of it than a hundred hours of lessons about grammar? 

Child 2, aged five, doesn’t like writing any more because ‘it’s too hard.’ She can dissect a sentence and accurately identify proper and abstract nouns, adverbs and adjectives, and their function in the sentence – thanks to Mr Gove for his KS1 test brainwaves that suck every bit of joy and fun out of English – but she doesn’t like writing. She used to love school, and all it entails – the reading, the writing, the friends, the art, the games she played and the carpet time where she learned and explored. Once she asked me if she could go to school every day and not just week days. Now she’s jaded; school is a place where she writes. She loves her friends and her teachers and school itself – but not the writing. But you know – as long as she’s doing well and writing when she’s told and behaving it doesn’t matter does it? All I should care about is how well she’s doing, shouldn’t I? There she is, my lovely girl, proving to Nicky Morgan that her ridiculous, assessment-heavy, holding-schools-to-account system works perfectly well. Look how she can read and write! Look at the maths she can do! Look at everything she can do at five! This must mean the system’s right! 

Except this misses the point. Yes, she can do it. But she doesn’t want to. She doesn’t enjoy it. She loves reading, and art, and gymnastics, and playing. She writes because she’s told to. At the age of five, the education system is creating a child who may never learn to love writing, that cornerstone of her whole school existence, because it’s all too much, too soon. It’s all getting her to the next target and the next stage and the next level – undoubtedly before she’s actually ready – and in the meantime crushing a love of learning that is inherent within all children. 

Now that child 1 is in such a different – private – school, I can see this isn’t how education is meant to be. It’s meant to broaden their horizons, not narrow them. It’s meant to enrich their lives, not cause them stress. It’s meant to build confidence by celebrating all that they can do, and not what they can’t – yet. It’s meant to teach them what they’re developmentally ready to learn, not what the government wants them to. It’s meant to let them proceed at their own pace, because they’ll all get there in the end, and no five year old should have to compete with others. It’s meant to teach them a love of reading and writing, where they always feel they’re good at it, because they learned when they were ready to learn and not when the curriculum said they should. 

I don’t know how many more posts I can write about this, how many more articles I can read, how many more nights I can lie awake and know that my child is not being served well enough by the state system – before I give up and move her too. Especially as I watch her brother come slowly alight again with the joy of learning in his new school; see him bounce happily out to meet my car at night with a new, wonderful lightness in his face; hear him talk with great, earnest pride about all the learning he did that day and what he achieved and what a great day it was. That’s what all children should have, in a country like ours, by right. I don’t want to be a private school parent- it goes against every grain of my born-working-class, Labour voting, state school teacher, Guardian-reading being. Our education system, which we all pay for, and want to support, and want to believe in; it should provide all this. Because the education of young children should be about learning, and not tests. And no one should have to pay to find it. 
* If you, like me, are a parent who feels powerless and worries about the future of our children in this system, an amazing group of parents have organised a kids’ strike on Tuesday May 3rd. Check them out here – 



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