This post has been brewing for a while, but I have been too self-conscious to post it. I am aware that as I write about my feelings about the UK education system and the schooling situation in this country, I write from a place of privilege and I feel very self-conscious about that. Perhaps this removes my entitlement to opinion, as I am fortunate to have options, but never the less, I ask for permission to add my experiences and observations as a parent with 2 kids in school, and my expertise of researching children for 12 years into the mix on what is an increasingly heated conversation on UK education.
Something has to change.
The gap between the current generation of children and the education system, that is designed to grow and develop young minds preparing them for work and adult life, has always existed. The world, the kids growing up in it move faster than systems can keep up, this is no new thing. Difference is, that today this gap is so massive it takes the shape of an enormous dark crevice, swallowing up parents, kids and teachers within it as it ever widens and becomes increasingly dangerous.
I’ll start from the beginning.
We have two children, one in reception at a local state school, and one in year three, now in an independent school. We chose to move our eldest son to an independent school when we recently relocated from London to Dorset. Partly this was forced upon us, due to lack of places in local schools, and partly because it was an option we had started to seriously consider due to his experiences at state primary, which, taking into context his young age and early stage in his learning journey I was unhappy with.
It was strange time making this decision, taking the leap away from state school, the financial implications alone were significant, and required lots of calculators and brow scratching, but what really kept me awake at night was the notion that doing this required me to take a massive U-turn on my beliefs and values, going against my plans of how I always assumed I would raise my children.
When we had our first child, 7 years ago, I was outspoken about not putting our kids through private schooling. On reflection, this was a bit irrational given I knew nothing about independent schools, the differences between them, and the fact that it wasn’t even a financial option. But I think these feelings weren’t so much a rejection of independent schools per say, but more an acknowledgment to a set of values born from my own experiences and beliefs about the world. I was state school educated in the 90s in the Midlands. I grew up attending ‘decently average’ schools when back then there was no fight for school places, no ‘live and die’ by the Hunger Games that is commonly known as ‘catchment area’ today, and no reigning terror of the Ofsted curse. Of course, all those things did exist, but not to the extremes that they do today. It was pretty simple actually, you went to your nearest school, they were all kind of fine and that was that really.
I had good teachers, I had bad teachers. I excelled in some areas, and underperformed and got lost in others. I had a teacher who worked hard to convince me I would be some kind of world famous journalist, and another who had bottles of booze under his desk (the lessons were hilarious though, physics had never been so popular, though weird how none of us thought to tell anyone about this at the time). There were nice kids, and there were mean kids. Sometimes it got pretty wild. There were book-worthy characters, and moments of sheer nostalgic hilarity – did that new girl Bethany really put a Time Out up her fanny and eat it? I still don’t know. I still really want to know. And I’d love to know whatever became of that kid who got suspended because he walked out of school after winning £100 in packet of French Fries because he thought he’d didn’t need school with that kind of money in his pocket. I hope he got lucky and won the lottery.
School for me was comfortable, not privileged, but good. It was your average 90s suburban Midlands state school experience. As I have embarked on schooling from a parent point of view, I can now see that I benefitted from having a brain that worked within the system, at least for any written subjects anyway. I could write, and I was a big reader, so any subject with essay writing or critical thinking felt intuitive for me. Maths was another story, but who needed maths when you were geeking out on every single Goosebumps book you could get your nerdy little paws on. I was also able to express myself easily, my parents encouraged me to be an individually, both physically though personal interests and a wild array of clothing choices and hair colours, but also academically in the subjects that I connected with. But for those kids who didn’t have minds which matched up with the system, and on top of that couldn’t readily express themselves in meaningful ways, it was more difficult. You could see them crashing out all over the school, getting into trouble from the bottom of the class or simply falling away and getting lost in the middle.
If you fit, you thrive. If you don’t, you drown.
That was how it went, and this still happens today, trouble is that today I believe it’s gotten worse not better. Despite whatever may have gone down in the 90s, boozy teachers n’ all, we still got do a lot more non-academic learning and development which I feel has massively benefitted us millennials in our approach to adult-life. There were a lot of arts, creativity and sports; long, long lessons doing cross-country, athletics, huge design tech rooms that you’d now be forgiven for assuming belonging to a private school were standard issue, all yielding dangerously exciting tools. There were endless hours of cooking (to make an average pasta sauce and once a jacket potato with a Pot Noodle on top, not even joking), and weekly practical science lessons, (we’ll skip over the part where I set my alight my shirt on a Bunsen Burner and ended up in an ambulance), and there were also relentless sewing lessons to produce one small make-up bag out of some old curtains. This is where things have really changed as a lot of this has been stripped out, deemed a ‘luxury’ today with less time to fit it all in as in its place has come more tests, SATs, relentless phonics, and a series of never ending hoops that teachers are forced to jumped through, held accountable not by the successful development, well-being and happiness of children, but by the accurateness of the marks they make on paper, and their ability to parrot back what they’ve been told.
Would my teacher who encouraged his foretelling of my famous journalist career have had time (and energy) in today’s system, I really question that. (By the way if you are reading Mr Gleave, I’m sorry that didn’t really work out, but you know I got somewhere that I hope you’re happy with).
So, let me come back to the moment we made the switch to independent, the triggers and what’s happened since.
In London, we did the young London professional couple move, forking out for a house by the best school, a stone’s throw from the door and well within catchment. This statement move, is now perceived to be a sign of successful parenting, and what I believe is a catalyst to many of the issues we have with the system causing great stress and anxiety to parents everywhere. The school we did get into as planned, I have to say was wonderful. A beautiful building, old school house style with big grounds and modern facilities and an exceptional extra-curricular after school offer. It was never the school I had a problem with. The head was a bit archaic for modern parents like us, but she ran a tight ship, and nothing really happened when I ignored her letters telling me to cut his hair ‘above the ears’. Gasp. It was pretty traditional, in hindsight probably too traditional for what we really wanted, but it was a quality environment. Reception went smoothly and he settled in great, but as soon as we hit years one and two, things started to change.
The pressure heightened each year with the amount of homework and the intensity of feedback given to us as parents to ‘accelerate his progress’. Half-way through his second year, I realised not one teacher had said anything positive to me about our son. We were constantly called in to be told how behind he was, how he was taking up extra attention of the teachers to get him up to the right level and how he was still on the year one reading level. During this time, we were doing spellings with him every night, plus reading, plus the homework, all to try and catch him up to a mythical ‘SATs required level’ which is quite literally meaningless. For a 6-year-old kid, I had real worries about what that was doing to his feelings of self-worth, confidence, relationship to learning and also the sheer time it was taking away from unstructured play (proven to be a critical form of development and expression). Not to mention the pressure it put on us as busy working parents. And, though he wasn’t privy to any of these conversations, kids are smart, and should never be understated as anything but. They are so perceptive of people’s communication, moods, body language, tones and they embody the environment around them both consciously and subconsciously. I could see when he came out of school, he was quite often stressed.
This all came to a head in one pretty gnarly parents evening where I ended up in tears, followed by a bit of a show down with the teacher. I kind of lost it when I was told (again) that despite an adept skill for abstract thinking and coming up with ideas and stories, there is little point of this if he can’t write it all down and read it back. By this point I’d been relocated to a teacher’s office where I mentally tried to compose myself. I talked about the mental health epidemic in this country amongst young children experiencing stress and about a generation who feel anxious and under confident all of which is spurned from scenarios exactly like this one. In the end, the teacher dropped her guard a little and said she couldn’t agree more and that after listening to what we were already doing with him at home, it was way above the average and any more would be too much. I kind of felt a bit sorry for her in the end.
Though I believe the teacher was wrong to make the comment about ideas versus literacy, it neatly encapsulates one of the core issues at the heart of the system which is that schools, or at least the state system they operate in, place a higher value on traditional academic markers of development and undervalue more emotional, social and creative skill sets. And as a business woman out there in the contemporary commercial world it is these skills we will be desperate for in the future. We don’t even know what jobs will be available to these kids when they are older, when considered in that context some of what’s prioritised in the curriculum just seems really quite strange. If every skill was viewed as equally important and kids’ strengths were nurtured in a more productive and applied way, school would be a different experience. The ability to come up with ideas should be treated on par with literacy, as should coding, as should being a good friend or the ability to work in team and so on.
But of course, at state school there is no room for personal learning styles, and if you don’t have a phonetic mind these days, then you’re basically screwed. There’s no time or space to nurture unique strengths, and teachers don’t have the resources or support to flex and move in the direction of individual children, they are boxed into a ridged system which rather than opening the minds of the kids in their class, actually succeeds in closing it down the longer they remain within it. When is all this is happening in a class of 30, it’s unsurprising that amongst such a vast spectrum of ability (and age: shout out to my summer babies!), it’s not surprising that whilst kids are supposed to be building a love of learning in the early years of school, they’re actually learning how to size themselves up against others and quickly become highly qualified in their ability to identify what they can’t do, rather than what they can do.
I don’t blame the teachers, or the schools, even the one that made me cry, they are victims of the system too, and my goodness what a thankless job they do. If I could change anything in society, it would be to elevate the status of teachers back to a position of authority, and respect with the salaries that go with that and give them the freedom to apply their own styles and contemporary ideas to the classroom. You can’t put a price on a good teacher, they can quite literally be life-changing and we need to do better at attracting and nurturing that talent. I have countless CVs coming to me at the moment of disenchanted Primary School teachers looking to escape the system, and as a parent it makes me so sad, as often these are the exact people I would want teaching my kids.
So, when we looked around one particular school and the head told me that the school built around ‘happy children’, because happiness leads to confidence which leads to development and learning, I felt a relief. I was so exhausted with the state school I was pretty much like ‘just take all my money’. The school has a high focus on sport and activity and also a woodland area on site with outdoor teaching (forest school). We laughed on the way home about how we realised we were about to fork out for what could feasibly be described as a ‘slightly posher, with smaller class sizes 90s school’, but we knew it was really matched our eldest. And he is thriving there, he comes out calm, confident and often buzzing, it’s much better suited to his personal learning needs and I feel he’s been given support to help with the things he finds hard but also is having the space to hone in on his skills and develop these further without getting bogged down in ‘levels’.
For our youngest, is it not financially viable right now to have them both in independent school. This was a tricky thing to wrestle thing as we’re primed to believe that all kids should do the same thing and siblings should be at the same school. Another problem with the state schooling is that there is only one way, one choice, and if it doesn’t suit then unless you have the financial means, there’s not really much you can do. Our daughter is very different to our son and I think will have a very different experience. The school she attends is a small church school and so far, she’s loving it. I don’t feel guilty about not giving her the same opportunity as I feel I’ve been lucky to make choices that suit the children individually and right now the school does really suit her (she loves her teacher and is obsessed with her shiny hair!) When things get a bit more serious and she moves up, we’ll revaluate for both of them, and make choices are right for them individually at the moments that matter. But for now, I feel really happy that they’re both in environments that feel good for them and the whole experience has taught me quite a lot about making choices, planning for the future and how I can support them both at home in places where the system might take them off on a bit of an old-school tangent.