Testing 2 year olds? Time to emigrate

Do you ever get the feeling you’re living in a parallel universe? Like you’re in a dream, suddenly finding yourself in a world that you don’t much recognise?

I get that feeling a lot at the moment. It comes on me in a rush, like an instant cold sweat, every time I read about proposed changes to the education system in this country.

This morning, I read the latest idea touted by Ofsted, to test two year olds in numeracy and literacy, to make them “better prepared for primary school” and I had to pinch myself.

I thought I was dreaming and had somehow transported myself back to Victorian Britain, where children sat in cold classrooms, chalking letters on a piece of slate. Where a stern teacher paced up and down, rapping children on the knuckles if they weren’t concentrating.

My daughter is three and three quarters. She currently goes to a pre-school – a lovely pre-school – where she plays with other children, paints, does gardening club, Forest School, reads stories and takes part in plays. She also has a weekly French lesson (mainly involving singing) and a daily circle time activity, where they look at numbers and phonics in a group setting. It couldn’t be further from the Victorian model of tiny children sitting in rows.

And here’s the thing – most of her day at pre-school is about playing. Even when she’s doing teacher-led activities she’s playing. They’re singing or talking about ideas, or reading stories. She’s having fun. Because, at the tender age of three – or any age come to think of it – education SHOULD be fun. It shouldn’t be about forcing a tiny child to hold a pencil and write out letters they don’t understand. To me, that seems like the perfect way to encourage a future hatred of education.

Most of the education policies I hear about at the moment appear to hark back to a (mythical) “golden age” of learning. An age where children were regularly tested, where Maths and English were considered the only subjects worth knowing, where subjects like Art, Dance and Drama were looked upon with scorn (they’re not “proper subjects” are they?!). Where children learned by rote and were force-fed numbers and letters.

I imagine these children as the geese in a traditional Fois Gras factory. They’re encouraged to open their mouths wide while lessons are poured down their necks. They leave school at the end of the day, uncomfortably gorged and exhausted, with not much understanding of what they’ve actually learned. Enjoyment of lessons is neither here nor there. In this “golden age”, education is about preparing children to be future workers, not about stimulating a love of learning.

Funny really. My own experience of education couldn’t have been more different to this “golden age”, and I’ve turned out OK. By Gove standards, you might even say I’ve turned out a “success” – if you measure success in terms of earning money, having a mortgage, being married and not claiming benefits, that is.

Of course you could argue that this is because I had two parents who loved me and showed an active interest in my education – they were teachers after all. But I’m sure that my experience at nursery, primary and secondary school also played a big part in who I am and what I’m doing today.

I had engaged, motivated, inspirational teachers at both primary and secondary school. My love of Art, Drama, English and Music was actively encouraged. I wasn’t made to feel like a failure because I hated Maths. I had lots of time to play with other kids and, as a teenager, to do extra-curricular activities like learning musical instruments and doing dance clubs. I also had time to just hang out with my mates.

I always studied the subjects I loved and never felt under pressure to perform for anyone other than myself. I learned and studied because I WANTED to learn and study. I stayed away from Maths and Science because I preferred other subjects, and that was fine.

I’m scared for my daughter’s education.

If all these proposals and plans and ideas get put into action, then I fear her experience of school will be very different to mine.

She’ll face regular tests, from the age of 5. If she shows aptitude for creative subjects but doesn’t enjoy the likes of Maths and Science, then I’m worried she’ll be branded a failure. What she likes and dislikes will be of no regard, because she’ll just be another number on a sheet or a league table, a future worker whose main purpose in life is to earn lots of money and “contribute effectively” to society. She’ll be trained in long working hours, having had years of experience of a 9am – 6pm school day.

The baby currently growing in my belly will start a school education at two years old. He or she will be tested at the age of two, to measure his or her progress in literacy and numeracy. Then he or she will go on to experience a similar education to his or her big sister. Long days. A focus on “core” subjects. All with an underlying aim to mould him or her into a good worker, someone who can earn lots of money and “contribute effectively” to society. (Because everyone knows people who don’t earn lots of money don’t contribute effectively to society, obviously.)

I see these plans being put into place and think, “What a load of chumps”. I wonder if the people in charge are speaking to teachers, the real experts in education. I wonder if they’re not just putting forward grand ideas to make a political statement, to win votes from people who blame teachers and education for every problem this country has ever had.

I wonder, and I pinch myself again. Surely this isn’t happening? It must be a dream. No one could be that stupid… surely?



PS. If you’re interested in the whole issue of education and education policy then this post at Parentshaped and this post at Lulastic may be of interest.


  1. says

    I wish it was all a dream. I really, really dislike Gove, and his government an ENOURMOUS amount. My sister has been a primary teacher for 12 , I have helped in schools throughout that period and their ideas for changing the educational system appall me. My daughter has been in a lovely pre-school and is now in the reception part…she is flourishing. I dread to think how different things could be in just a few short years when my son starts. I often wish to emigrate, to get away from all, to be in a country where children are allowed to be children, where emphasis is placed upon their early years, where school isn’t about tests and ‘passing’ and being forced to grow up at the rate of knots….I hear what your saying and I whole heartedly agree…

    • RebG says

      Come to Wales – We have the Foundation Phase here – learning through play and direct experience for 3-7yr olds. and yes they do learn to read and write! Take a look!

  2. says

    Oh Molly, I rant about this stuff almost daily on my blog, twitter feed and facebook page. We are living in the most dangerous and maddening of times. 90% of the teaching and early years profession is fighting back hard, but they / we as parents are up against the most difficult of enemies; intransigent, ill-informed, career motivated politicians and policy makers whose personal ideologies have nothing evidence based about them. I hope your many readers are encouraged by your post to get involved. We are literally fighting to defend British childhood.

    Great post.

  3. says

    I feel like we are going backwards. Back to children being seen and not heard. To children not allowed to be children.

    That is all about league tables. Passing. Developmental milestones. One upmanship

    “my son could count to ten at eight months”
    “my six month old is fluent in Cantonese”

    Where will it end? Please can children be children? No more of this nonsense with school from the age of 2. With bras for five year olds. Crop tops for 10 year olds. Sling back mules for 12 year olds.

    I just want it all to stop. For children to be children. Is it really too much to ask for that to be permitted? When we have to work for 50 years? Can we not just know not that we were allowed to play for the first 5?

  4. Catherine says

    Totally agree. If I had young children again, I would seriously consider home-schooling. There is worse to come. Spelling and grammar tests for 6 and 7 year olds, a boring national curriculum, empty vessels being filled up. However, it will change. The next time there is a swing in the polling stations and the politicians will start to reinvent the wheel…and that’s the problem. They spout out how well Finland is doing BUT that country has cross party agreement, so education isn’t a political football. I LOVE working with children in the classroom but I’m so glad to be leaving the teaching profession at the end of the year.

    • says

      Coming from a teacher with years of experience in primary schools, I would trust your judgement over this FAR more than Gove’s!

  5. says

    I am SO totally with everything you’ve written. In fact, if i’d not been so darn busy today I would’ve written something similar, though not as good i’m sure (i’m exhausted with end of termitus!). I’d heard the dreadful Gove and his cronies were planning something like this so wasn’t surprised when i heard it on the radio this morning. Check out Save Childhood Movement who are collective of intelligent, know what they’re talking about people, and support them as much as you can. I wrote a post on their campaign Too Much Too Soon back in October that hundreds of academics and practitioners signed. http://wp.me/p2oDmP-rd. But guess what? Gove stuck his fingers in his ears and said he knew better……aaaagh! My two are 9 and 7 and are already feeling the effects not of over testing (thank God) but of over bureaucratisation of primary schools and teachers unable to just let the kids learn stuff creatively or outside for the need to tick this and that box. WE need to shout as loud as we can to stop this craziness. Keep it up! PS Where shall we all emigrate to?!

  6. says

    I’m a bit on the fence actually. When I first read the headlines I did think it sounded crazy, but after thinking about it, I’m not so sure it’s that different from what happens in some good nurseries now.

    H is informally assesses at her nursery, they make sure she is making progress with letters and numbers, they practice with packed lunches and make sure she can manage the toilet well…all things that get her ready for school, and I’m glad. I like that she will start school with a good grounding in letters and numbers, I want nursery to make sure she is ready to start year R.

    However, most of her ‘learning’ is done through play which for me is the key point. I’d be heartbroken if she was sat at a desk for hours on end, but well organised learning through play ( which I can only hope is what these plans will lead to ) I think is a good thing.

    I think I’ve said before that I love Year R ( as it currently stands ) the emphasis at S’s school certainly is play based learning. I’m less keen on the amount of work in Year 1 and 2, but I can’t see a real alternative, ( apart from emigrating ). On a positive note Z is about to do his SATS, but even that isn’t at all stressful for him, I’m not even sure he realises he’s being assessed most of the time, so it’s not all bad.

    • says

      It’s good to see Z isn’t stressed about his SATs – that’s definitely a positive. I think, generally, I’m against this idea of children being “empty vessels” to fill with knowledge before they even start school. The idea that a child of aged 4 should know xxx, for example, I just see as crazy. It reduced the ability to appreciate and distinguish different talents, loves and interests that different have and, in the worst case scenario, leads to worry and competition between parents. I also think it doesn’t take into account the fact that there is a huge difference between a child who starts school in Year R who is barely 4 years old (as F will be) and one is nearly 5. But that’s a whole other argument.

  7. says

    My son is 2, and the words ‘over my dead body’ spring to mind! I think the fact he will start full time formal education just past his 4th birthday is bad enough! I understand that this is based on a minority of children experiencing early childhoods deprived of the sort of fun our kids are learning through, but think it is hypocritical to suggest ideas like this at a time when sure start centres etc are closing due to removal of funding. These centres were about supporting exactly the children they are referring too in this sort of statement. School isn’t compulsory at any age, and this is not something I would be involving my child in. Having said that it is right to look at ways to support the children who are being left behind, I just don’t think blanket policies are the answer.

  8. Nicola James says

    of course there is another way…. the Waldorf Education system… back by the inspirational ideas of Rudolph Steiner…. but of course the only way to access this most of the time is privately……and we are so programmed that its free so why should we pay for it that most of us dont even consider it….. I knew in my heart before I had even conceived my son that I never wanted to raise my child in the system…. to allow him to grow to be a whole rounded human being… not just a robot who passed some bits of paper that now allow him to get a job again in some system that just traps him…. I want him to be able to think for himself…. have his own ideas….and have the will to follow thru on them……….. the idea behind the Waldorf education system is not to raise a child by pumping him/her full of information ( that updates and changes by the time he/she leaves school anyway….) but to bring out everything thats already in that child… to nurture…. the allow the child to play … being the biggest tool a toddler and child has for learning………….. Here is a paragraph I have taken from the introduction to waldorf education…. “The focus of Steiner/Waldorf education is to educate the whole child, based on the insights into child development by the Austrian scientist and philosopher, Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). The emphasis is not only on the intellectual development of the child, but focuses equally on developing the child’s feeling life (artistic and emotional) and also its life of will (the ability to carry through ideas into a finished piece of work, incorporating all the steps in between). In this way we try to allow the child’s potential to unfold, allowing them to grow into a self-motivated, content adult.”
    Most people wouldnt even consider the idea of sending their child to a private school cause of the money….. we have put everything else to the back seat to find a way and make it happen for our son to be allowed to be a child for as long as he can……………. and do you know what is also amazing… most waldorf schools understand that people cannot afford it….. and as a community which is what the school is seen as…. those who can pay more than the suggested donation do… so that those who cannot afford it… can pay less…….. and its amazing how when you believe in something so whole heartedly….. life finds a way…………. More and more alternative types of schooling are becoming available….. but the only way we can make a change to the way the government see our schooling is by saying something, doing something… and finding our own way out of it……… No two year old should be tested…. no 3 or 4 year old should be tested… when you look at the statistics coming out of schools now they are saying that starting earlier with children…(especially bosy because of how their brains develope…..) actually does more harm than good…… how can we raise children with a love of learning… if we make it so hard on them and no fun when they are soo so little……………

    Suggested Reading – Steven Biddulphs… Raising boys & his other book… Raising girls…. definately some eye openers in there……..

    Bless you and I hope that enough is done within the sysytem in time to allow our children to be children for as along as they can……………

  9. says

    Absolutely agree. I think that there is an issue about supporting children who come from homes where they aren’t supported to be “school-ready”. By that, though, I mean confident, interesting, engaged little people, ready to start to take on board education in a (slowly) more formal setting. Not actually *being* educated when, developmentally, they are still little more than babies.

    This is all mixed up in a toxic brew of political spin, and as you so rightly say, based in no way on evidence from professionals on how children actually grow and learn best.

  10. says

    Have you heard of Sir Ken Robinson? He did a fantastic Ted talk about how schools are killing creativity and used the example of Gillian Lynne, who’s a famous choreographer but when she was at school in the 30s they thought she had something wrong with her because she couldn’t sit still. If she were in school nowadays she would be dosed up on Ritalin and given a label, and the world would never have had the likes of Cats.
    Whenever I hear the latest tosh to come out of Gove’s mouth I can’t decide whether to home school my daughter or just leave the country!

    (incidentally, I wrote a similar post on my blog today: http://www.singlemotherahoy.com/2014/04/do-we-expect-too-much-of-nurseries-and.html)

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