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?