Last month many of our friends found out which primary schools their 4 year olds had got in to. We, in theory, will be doing all that next year. I was struck by tales of mums in tears because their child did (or didn’t) get in to their first choice of school. There is so much anxiety around education and schooling in this country and I worry about how that transfers onto our children, the last thing we want is for their place of learning to become associated with anxiety. I also worry that the school system is so rigid and test based that parents feel disempowered to take the lead in their own child’s education.
From way before we even became parents we’ve long admired the Finnish model of education with the ethos being to wait until the child is 7 before introducing formal education i.e. numeracy and literacy. In the early years the focus is on play-lead learning and developing social skills such as caring for others, empathy and self-care. It’s also worth noting Finland has some of the best education outcomes in the world.
As the UK is not set up for a delayed start we would either need to ‘home educate’ or find the funds for something along the lines of Steiner so his early learning is play- / creativity-based and child lead. Every fibre in my body feels we start formally educating children far too early. I also feel culturally there is a rush for our children to hit every milestone as soon as possible, when there is much to be said for letting their childhoods and achievements unfold at a natural pace, lead by them and facilitated by us.
In terms of our approach to parenting our instinct has been to sit back, and let the Little Chap take his time in discovering his capabilities and the world around him. For our family this has worked very well. For example he stopped wearing nappies a couple of months after he turned 3. Some of his male peers were considerably earlier than that. But what I can say is that we never had any tears, there were no battles, and pretty much nothing in the way of ‘accidents’ because we gave him the time and space to do it when he was ready, there was no ‘training’ involved. We had no need to rush that transition. It’s been totally stress free, and actually a real pleasure to tune in to his pace and watch him succeed in his own right. And I want to offer him that same approach to his early years of education.
There seems to be a huge shift between how our infants learn and how our pre-schoolers and beyond learn. We didn’t sit down and formally teach our chap to roll over, to reach out for toys, to crawl, walk, say his first word. These things happened naturally through us playing together, him watching us, through his own biological imperative, through him testing things out in his own time, through us gently encouraging and facilitating. None of his progress has happened as a result of us sitting down and making a lesson out of it. It was his own curiosity / frustration which lead him to try to roll over (and fail) and try again until he figured it out. And then suddenly this style of learning stops and learning through play becomes ‘learning to the test’ and little fidgety children are expected to stay seated, to focus on one topic; and just as they are in the flow, the topic changes and they’re expected to switch gear and with it their focus.
Currently Little Chap is in the very common phase of asking a million questions every day; How is the sky made? (ask your father). When I’m bigger can I fly my helicopter up to heaven and bring Granny Anne down? (if only!), How is poo made? Do foxes eat poo? Does anything eat poo? (I googled that one, it’s a surprisingly large list).
A recent non-poo-based question was ‘how are volcanos made?’. I’m not even sure how he got to hear about volcanos but it prompted him and I to sit down and watch some videos on volcanos. Vince went out and bought a book on volcanoes and a volcano making kit which they made together. In that one project they got to learn about mould making (by using plaster of Paris to create the volcano), they did some painting to make it look realistic and then some chemistry in the form of mixing store cupboard ingredients to make the erupting lava. The Little Chap also asked his Uncle Grant to tell him about the time he was filming at a Volcano and they sat together and looked at the pictures of that trip as the stories unfolded.
None of these activities felt like ‘education’ to any of us, they were fun, we all learned stuff and we had the time to follow these activities through until he was ready to shift focus. But the point is he expressed an interest, he chose the topic and therefore he was totally engaged. This is what I want for his early education. I want him to be able to immerse himself in a subject, an experiment, the creation of a piece of art until he’s done. I want him to freely follow an ever unfolding thread of learning. I want him to learn to learn for the love of it and not because he’ll be in trouble with the teacher if he doesn’t.
I know there are benefits to going to school and for some children it’s a place where they thrive but it’s not for everyone. One of the most common things I hear when I tell people we’re thinking of home educating is ‘but what about socialising him, won’t he miss out?’ Well yes and no. He will miss out on seeing the same people every day and forming friendships (and potentially enemies) on that basis but home educating doesn’t mean staying at home all day. We would meet up with other children (of all ages) being educated outside of school. He will have playdates once school is finished for the day with his friends who do go to school. He will hang out with his beloved cousins and the whole host of adults he encounters in his life. He’s currently not in school or even pre-school and yet already he’s one of the most social three year olds I know. He instigates conversation with his peers and adults alike. I don’t think his socialisation will be a problem.
For the sake of super easy access to 25-30 other children his age on a daily basis I’m not prepared to accept unquestioningly the structure and ethos of school. Why are primary school aged children getting homework when research shows there is little benefit and a very real risk of negative psychological effects? The school day is long enough, I believe they should be playing, or doing recreational activities they love, spending time with their families. And yet I regularly hear parents talk about the nightmares they have getting their child to do their homework, how there were tears, tantrums, bedtime anxiety over homework not completed, how the parent spent the evening finishing the homework etc. As the young people say: WTF?? The more empowered amongst my friends send the homework back to the school, unfinished, with a note to say they are not putting their child through that level of stress aged SIX, and I applaud them for this. Why are we doing this to our little children? If primary aged children want to continue working at home then happy days, let them do it with joy in their hearts, but at this tender age, and where there is resistance and anxiety, we run the risk of turning our children off learning completely if they feel forced. There is plenty of time for them to develop self-discipline around study when they are mature enough to understand the benefit.
And why are we testing them so young? It is absolutely not for their benefit. Teachers are saying they don’t want to be doing it, it’s box ticking, it’s for the stats, not for the healthy development of our children. These tests aren’t measuring a child’s self confidence, self-esteem, creativity, wellbeing, love of learning, ability to engage in a topic of their choice, life skills, social skills, vocational skills, empathy, dexterity, and these are some of the vital skills we need for a healthy, happy adult life.
Not all children are destined to be academic so what about them? Where do they get their educational and personal validation from if all the tests are about academic ability and demonstrating you can commit a bunch of facts to memory? We each have our own set of valuable talents and abilities, and when we emerge from the school system (for many of us) that is where we begin to learn who we are and how to be who we are with confidence (I’m still learning), how to figure out where we belong, what we are good at outside of whether or not we know how to do quadratic equations. It’s a worry.
School never suited me, I did well enough academically but even in primary school I used to look at the cars driving past the school and long for the freedom of those drivers…I was eight! It’s therefore little surprise that I’ve spent most of my working life as a freelancer or self-employed. I find institutions stifling. I never wanted to be a sausage in a sausage factory. The current school model is based on the early days of British industrialisation when children were being primed for life in a factory. That is just not the future our children are facing. With the rapid growth of Artificial Intelligence taking over the human workforce we are going to need to get creative career-wise. And therefore we need to be teaching our children how to be adaptable, free-thinking, self-directed, entrepreneurial individuals with a life long love of learning. This way they will stand a chance of finding their place within a fast changing world. I simply don’t feel confident our school system is going to do this as well as we can, for our specific child, particularly in the earlier years. As a side note, some years ago I came across an exciting alternative to mainstream secondary school (unfortunately as is always the case the fees are ££££) but the style of learning they offer would have suited me to the ground. I’m certain I would have flourished there and I would love the same for our Little Chap. I highly recommend a watch of their video.
We will certainly visit our local schools, we’ve by no means made up our mind (although having written this post my gut tells me I may have!) but I will remain open to what our local schools can offer. Taking the unconventional route feels both liberating and daunting, taking the conventional route feels societally simpler but at right angles to our values and how we choose to live our lives. We’re a way off needing to make a decision, thankfully, but these things creep up and I want us to glide into this decision feeling well informed, and not rush it because a deadline is snapping at our heels. So watch this space, I will post an update once we are clearer about the path ahead.
I am aware this may be an emotive subject for some, and this post is not designed to be a critique of your own choices around education, we are all striving to do the best we can for our own children. I’m still trying to figure this stuff out and I’m choosing to do it here because if I’m honest I have been fearful of negative reactions and people telling me we’re going to fuck our child up or turn him into a weirdo so I needed to walk through that fire and put my thoughts out there. Fear can be a crippling voice in one’s head, but my gut tells me we’ve got a lovely boy so we’ve done a good enough job so far, and there’s nothing to say we can’t continue to do so. I’m inclined to listen to my gut over fear. I can see pros and cons about both routes and I would love you to share your thoughts and experiences, whatever your choices have been.
Header image courtesy of: www.homeschoolersanonymous.org