There are loads of things that people warn you about before you have kids, but which you kind of shrug off thinking they’re making a big deal over nothing. No sleep? Yeah, whatever – it can’t be that hard can it? Tantrums during the terrible twos? Not my kid. Competitive mum syndrome? Oh, come on. That’s not even a thing.
But then you become a parent and you realise everything they said was true. The sleepless nights are hard (HARD I tell you). Tantrums are zero fun. And that competitive mum thing? Turns out it does exist after all.
I clearly remember chatting with an old timer mum at a playgroup when Frog was a baby. This mum had been around the block – she had two older kids at school as well as a baby. “You think mums are competitive about their baby’s development, just wait until your little one starts school!” she laughed.
Now my daughter’s nearing the end of her first year at school I can kind of see what that experienced mum was saying. The thing is, I don’t think it’s as simple as competitive mum syndrome. I actually think the whole nature of the education system in our country breeds an underlying edge of competitiveness – amongst the kids just as much as the parents. And I don’t think this is a good thing.
Schools are judged by data. They’re under pressure to get kids to the next level of academic ability in order to prove they’re doing a good job. Results are what matter, so they push and push and push. Sometimes all this pushing isn’t in the best interests of the child. Sometimes all this pushing will just leave a child feeling pressurised, unmotivated, nervous and with no real inspiration to want to learn. Make learning fun and interesting and it seems natural that a kid will be more likely to thrive. However, the current set-up we have doesn’t always make this possible.
As mums and dads we’re well aware of the “Expected” level at which our children should be performing by the end of their first year at primary school. We’re told what our kids need to be doing to reach this level of attainment or push on to the next one. The rule of nature states that we want our kids to do well, so we encourage them to “work hard” at home, so they can “keep up” with their classmates. No matter if they happen to be a summer baby and are almost a full year younger than some of their peers.
One of the things I was most worried about before Frog started school was that she would end up just another number on a spreadsheet. If she struggled to meet some arbitrary level of academic ability would she be marginalised before she was even five years old? Would she still feel valued and know that intelligence and creativity come in all forms? I know she’s only five years old, but even five year olds can pick up on this kind of thing.
So when I was handed my daughter’s first school report last Friday I opened it with mixed feelings. I was determined not to get too bogged down by the levels of attainment next to each area of learning. The things I was really interested in, as a mum of a little girl who’s only just turned five years old, is if she’s making friends at school, if she’s kind and considerate, if she’s happy. Because, I figure, if these things are going right then the rest will follow somewhere along the line.
As it turns out, she’s at the “Expected” level in every area. But this isn’t what really stood out for me. The bits of her report that really gripped me were the comments about her character and nature at school. These comments told me she’s settled in well, has made firm friendships within the class, is kind and considerate, determined and eager to learn. All of these comments meant a million times more to me than the notes grading her to an “Expected” level.
It’s been a huge year for Frog. Not only did she start at a school where she didn’t know anyone, but she became a big sister. Luckily for us, the school has been great. It’s a small village school with a lovely atmosphere. All the children know each other’s names. Even at the park, the older ones look out for the younger ones – Frog will happily wave and call hello to year 6 boys and girls as we walk through the village, and the year 6 boys and girls shout a cheery greeting back.
When I was choosing a school I had three things in mind: could we walk there, did the staff and children seem happy and was it a bright, fun, cheerful place to be. Frog’s school is all of those things and more. For me, those positives outweigh any negatives that might come with scoring kids’ academic ability so early or towing the line of an education system that I don’t always think puts the needs of every individual child first. My kid is happy, therefore the school is doing a good job as far as I’m concerned.
How about you? Is your child at school yet? How did you feel about your kid’s report this year? Is there an age when the levels of academic attainment start to become more important, do you think? I’d love to know your thoughts.