Back to School Blues

Enjoying the last days of summer

This time of year is for new beginnings. Turning over a new leaf, just as the leaves begin to fall from the trees. The rhythm of the year is reinforced over years spent in the education system in the UK. Even now, I find it both exciting and daunting.

Imagine how that feeling is magnified when you are five. My daughter returned to school last week, yearning to see her friends and nervous about the new regime of Year 1. She is like many five-year-olds: silly, full of energy, deeply inquisitive. She retains that incredible ability to focus on the moment that young children have, to play compulsively. I think Year 1 may put a stop to that.

At a meeting with parents this week, her new teacher revealed the timetable for the new term. This group of five- and six-year-olds will spend every morning practicing handwriting and maths, followed by an hour of English. After lunch they do spelling, then writing (different to handwriting) and a combination of topic work and those other subjects children may find interesting, but don’t need to study in order to pass tests — music, science, PE, computing.

The timetable is so rigid that when a parent asked if the children would be able to explore their own interests in school time, the headteacher gently intervened to say that if the teachers allowed this, they would not have time to teach the National Curriculum and would thereby fail the children.

On top of more than half the time the children spend in school spent on teaching towards Key Stage 1 SATs, the national tests taken in year 2, the school asks us to help the children complete daily homework tasks including reading, maths “learn its” and spellings. This is despite many of us working full time and using wrap-around childcare that means we only see our children for an hour before bed during the week.

The school is, I think, a good school. It’s a diverse, inner London institution with a strong emphasis on its place in the community. The teachers appear to really care about the children they teach. The haphazard Victorian building and its staff are warm and welcoming. The teachers do their best to enthuse and engage the children within a policy framework that is, frankly, antithetical to childhood.

And this is not new. My teacher friends have been complaining for years. I read poet Michael Rosen’s tirades against the stifling of creativity and real learning in schools. I know that schools are plugging the gap left by parents (disclaimer: not all parents, and I’m not sure about the quality of the survey in the report).

But when it is your child slowing down as you approach the school gate, or having an uncharacteristic tantrum over brushing their teeth, or showing reluctance to go on what should be a great school trip to London Zoo, it gives you pause.

Why do other high achieving European nations send their children to school later than we do? Why do we have a crisis in children’s mental health? Honestly, I just want my daughter to be happy and I don’t think our education system allows that. I think we have a problem allowing our children to be children. And I wish I knew what to do about it.