When I look at my children I see five sons who are individuals; they are all an amalgam of different genetic traits which can easily be attributed to various strands of their father and me but each one has other personality and physical characteristics which are totally their own, perhaps a throwback to a previous generation, perhaps a result of environmental factors. Who knows? I love the fact that they are a close knit band of boys but even more I celebrate the fact that they are their own people. Together they make the most amazing group of boys/men who bring me enormous joy and who, I know, have much to offer the world. In bringing them up I have had a set of family rules within which we broadly operate but I have always tried to embrace their individuality and to recognise that different children require a different approach. I had the child who had to eat frequently or he would lose the plot, I had the child who liked a strict regime, I had the child who liked to have things done for him, I had the child who liked to do everything for himself, I had the child who needed to be in bed at the same time every night, I had the child who needed a flexible bedtime. The variety is what made it a challenge but it also made it an adventure. Children are constantly changing, what works one week won’t necessarily work the next, there is no ‘one fits all’ approach to child rearing and people who refuse to see that do so at their own peril. Just because a child is shy at the age of two doesn’t mean that they will always be shy. Just because a child is restless and ‘boisterous’ at eight doesn’t mean that they will always be that way. Children learn to do things when they are ready and yes, sometimes, they need a nudge in the right direction, but that is all it should be, a gentle toe in the water to see how they react. If they are ready they will get stuck in and surge forward.
It seems to me that nurseries and schools are, more and more, labelling children as having behavioural and developmental issues far too quickly even though, paradoxically, when there is a genuine educational need they often seem to refuse to acknowledge a parent’s concerns and refuse to press for an educational assessment. I know there are constant news stories about how many children are still not toilet trained at secondary school and how children are out of control but do we really know the true extent of this problem? And do we truly understand why this problem exists? is it because discipline is too lax or is because discipline is too rigidly enforced? Is the problem so great that we need to assess two and three year olds and move away from child-centred learning. There is a vast difference in expecting a fourteen year old to be able to sit still and concentrate for an hour and asking the same thing of a three year old. What is happening to our children’s childhoods?
I hated the first primary school I attended. My mother had chosen it when we moved to the area as it had a good reputation and was linked to the Church that we attended. I cried every single morning going into school and almost had to be dragged into the building; my parents were concerned but thought my distress was perhaps due to the fact that I was generally a clingy child. I hated that school; I hated the strict nonsensical rules, I hated being forced to eat food I didn’t like at lunchtimes; I hated how sarcastic the teachers were and how they openly favoured some children over others; I hated the way I was made to start learning to read from the prescribed reading scheme even though I already could read; I hated the way we were constantly being told to ‘sit up’, to ’be quiet’, to ‘try harder’. My salvation came in the form of a severe dose of whooping cough which led to an absence from school of several months. My parents saw such a change in my personality that they decided to move me to a different school. I blossomed; this was a school that celebrated the individual. It was chaotic, filled with laughter, had very few rules and yet operated smoothly and efficiently. The Headteacher was the most inspirational man one could ever hope to meet (I still find myself retelling many of his stories to my own children), the teachers were happy, the pupils were happy, every one was valued for who they were and academically the school became the top performing school in the area; not through selective admissions, not through pressure, but by nurturing the individual child. My mother did a small stretch of supply teaching there and couldn’t get over how relaxed it all was but how it worked so fantastically well. My father, who worked in Social Services, always tried to place foster children at the school as it would always do everything possible to integrate children from difficult backgrounds. A boy in my class started to go blind at the age of nine and the school bent over backwards to make it possible for his disabled mother to keep him at the school until it was time for him to start secondary education. I dread to think what would have happened to me had I stayed on at my first school; I certainly wouldn’t be where I am now.
Every day I become aware of yet another child who seems to have been unfairly treated by the education system. Flimsy excuses are given to explain why a child (with a known learning disorder) can no longer attend a particular school, parents are told their young child is hyperactive simply because he talks to another child during a writing exercise, parents are dragged into nursery to be told their three year old child is autistic without any previous warnings or concerns being expressed, parents are told that their school can no longer cope with their disabled child despite the fact that it has successfully done so over the course of the previous four years and the only thing that has changed is senior management.
Why do we have this situation. Is it all about league tables? Is it lack of training? Is it a change in the make up of educators? Is it a by-product of constant new government initiatives? Is it a lack of funding or mismanagement of available funds? Is it a combination of all these things? Is it a case of people just speaking out more about their experiences? I honestly don’t know. All I know is that somehow we need to save the current generation of children. We need to give them back their childhoods, let them play, let them find themselves in their own sweet time.
Education isn’t just about exams and grades. It isn’t just about preparing children for the workforce. We need to equip children for life. As
Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner maintained, education needs to include the cultivation of the moral, emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual dimensions of the child. It means looking at the whole child, not simply a narrow range of skills. In the past children were part of extended families and village communities which would bestow on them all manner of life’s experiences. Children learned how to cook, how to chop firewood, how to build a fire, how to navigate, how to raise animals before they started formal learning. At this stage, schools could concentrate on a more narrow range of activities. But as our community has become narrower and families have become more fragmented we need to look at schools to ‘close the gap’. Let’s forget about formally teaching young children to read and write and instead focus on the ‘softer’ activities: painting, dressing up, making dens, playing in sand, water, mud. Let them learn how to co-operate, how to take turns, how to co-exist with children and adults who may not be the same as them. Let them learn who they are and to respect what others are. Let them learn to be resilient, to be able to cope in the whole world, not just within the narrow confines of a workplace. Let our children be children. Let them learn as children learn best, through play, through observation, through the natural stimulus of the wonderful world in which we live. Let them learn to love learning and the learning will never stop.