As a Gen X-er, a child of the 70s, I remember having lots of free time to enjoy hobbies and play. When school was done for the day I went home, spent time with my animals (we had quite a menagerie at one point) and forgot all about spellings and fractions. The truth is, I had quite a tough time when I was in my last year of infant school. My teacher was unpleasant to say the least, and took a particular dislike to me and my stories about ponies. She used to hit me, and a few others she disliked, for minor transgressions and torment us mentally. For me that meant sitting facing the wall in a corner for the last few months of the year.
I was lucky enough to have a pony of my own (which she referred to as “wretched”) and he was a huge part of my life. Going home and forgetting all about school, doing as I pleased was the highlight of my day. I remember the feeling of dread on a Sunday, knowing that I had another week of misery ahead. Moving up to junior school after that was nothing short of joyous. Me and my best friend would spend hours messing about outdoors, setting obstacle courses and digging for treasure. I don’t think we ever had homework until we started secondary school aged 11. Even then the workload wasn’t onerous. How times have changed.
Isobel is now 8, and up until this year has loved school, despite having more homework than I did at that age. But lately she is feeling the pressure to keep up and it’s unsettling. There’s the weekly homework of either maths or English, spellings, reading and three sessions of maths online each week as a minimum. That’s on top of online spellings and times tables, and extra curricular guitar lessons, swimming lessons and street dance classes. It sometimes feels like I’m back at school again, having to re-learn things I’d forgotten in order to help her. Whatever happened to just going home and playing?
Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s important to learn. I see so many examples of bad grammar and spelling, particularly on Facebook. Learning when to use there/their/they’re as children and other such grammar rules stands us in good stead for later in life. But does it have to take up so much “free time”? When did childhood get so busy? I worry that all this work stifles creativity.
You see, like me, Isobel is creative. She is also naturally good with words. Maths, not so much. We have the same achilles heel when it comes to learning. I’m not a pushy parent; I’ll help her all I can but if maths is just not her thing I’m not going to pile the pressure on. She’s an excellent writer, and often has her stories read out in class. Of course I want her to do well, but I don’t want her to get upset for not being brilliant at everything. Scaring the kids by telling them high school is super strict and they need to up their game doesn’t motivate them. Especially when that’s more than two years away. I’m not sure some teachers share my view. They have their own pressures to hit targets, and this filters down to the kids.
This year a new curriculm came into force for Isobel’s year, so a year six teacher moved down to year four to implement the changes. Her teacher is obviously under pressure to make sure targets are met. But behind those numbers are real children, each one of them different, with their own unique abilities. Some need more help and encouragement, not ultimatums. The carrot not the stick. If teachers can’t engage with pupils and help them over the obstacles, how are the kids supposed to stay on track? It’s the same for adults in the workplace: a bad boss doesn’t get the best out of their team.
On Friday Isobel came out of school quite upset. The reason? She, along with almost half the class, had been put on amber for not doing enough online maths. The school has a traffic lights system for behaviour, with amber being a warning and red for a second misdemeanour. The irony is we’re constantly being told to limit kids’ screen time, yet she’s been punished for not doing enough. I could probably count the number of times Isobel has been on amber since starting school on one hand. It’s a big deal for her. Every time she feels an injustice has been meted out to her by a teacher I remember how it felt when I was that age.
I truly believe that we are all born with a personality, and while we’re shaped by events in our lives, some elements are there from the start and never disappear. I have always loved animals, and that’s never going to change. Children need space to be themselves, to express what’s in their hearts and what makes them happy. I’m 43 and I still need that! Learning isn’t just about numbers and grades. I didn’t have homework every night in junior school yet I can manage to string a sentence together and add up what I’ve spent on clothes each month 😉
It’s not that I wasn’t busy as a child, far from it; looking after a pony and various other pets took up a lot of my time. But I didn’t have the pressure of homework and SATs at Isobel’s age. I was an avid reader and often had my head in a book, there was no internet in those days after all. I certainly didn’t need to be told to read, so it felt like a pleasure rather than a chore. Learning at home was part of everyday life – I once challenged myself to memorise all the states of the USA and list them in alpabetical order! Maybe there’s a lesson there – when the pressure to learn is removed, learning becomes fun again.
I came across this interesting article recently that sums up why grades aren’t the be all and end all. A school principle sent a letter to parents of pupils, telling them not to stress too much over exams. In my experience having a good teacher who understands what makes each child tick makes all the difference. A one size fits all approach is bound to leave some lagging behind. My education left a lot to be desired, but it did leave me with plenty of free time to learn through play. I do wonder if, for all the improvements to the education system, this is being overlooked.