So I have to come out of the closet here: I am that mum who is following all the rules at school. I fill out my son's "reading record" diligently, make sure he is participating in all the learning opportunities he's being given and furiously order every costume from eBay that he needs for each dressing up day. But beneath the surface I am furious and I feel sad. I really didn't want him to be forced into this formal education system at only four years old.
I got quite excited in 2013 when a group of experts from the field of child health wrote an open letter to the then Government highlighting how our current system of education is failing our youngsters. Working in mental health services with young people I have seen first hand how detrimental being at school and especially being tested so much can be for many children and young people. I was hopeful that someone might listen. Michael Gove didn't at the time; he said these professionals were simply promoting low standards and expectations for our young people. He didn't want to acknowledge any downside to educational policy or hear real stories about how we are hurting our kids.
My boy is emotionally quite switched on. But sometimes I can't bear hearing him say that each day there are "more jobs" for him to do. He asks me why they don't sing songs so much these days like they did when he first started. My heart breaks a bit when I pick him up from after school club and he's been crying because he misses me: the total opposite of the little boy I have to drag out of his childminder's house as he's having so much fun. At home we are certainly not encouraging him to feel this way. We remain positive and we tell him to persevere, that hard things are part of life and I suggest he sings little songs in his head to cheer himself up if he is struggling. I can see how good he feels now he can recognise some words and do some simple sums but on the whole I genuinely think that it's too early for him to be leaving behind the childhood pleasures of play, fun, singing and creativity.
You don't have to be an expert to find hard evidence supporting the argument that we are failing our children and we've been talking about this for a few years already. In 2009 a UNICEF survey branded the U.K. the worst place to be a child out of the world's 26 richest countries and cited reasons connected to financial inequality and pressures of education. Currently 90% of countries in the world prioritise free play over formal education until around 6/7 years old. This includes Finland, Switzerland, Germany and Norway, some of our close neighbours. These countries know that developmentally children are more ready to learn and focus at these ages and that prior to this need play, play and more play in order to build strong foundations and to flourish emotionally. Meanwhile here at home we are sending our kids to school younger and putting them in structured learning environments from as early as three years old. Let's not forget the rigorous testing they are put through; a regime designed entirely around the notion of developing league tables, not for children's' actual benefit.
We know that corporal punishment in schools was thought to be the best way of approaching discipline years ago but by listening to experts telling us about what helps children to learn and feel safe we changed this. The emotional bruises left by over-testing and squashing creativity in favour of league tables and "the three R's" might not be as bad as those left by having a ruler smashed over your knuckles but we shouldn't be dismissing the downsides that do result. Can't we just get back to applying a bit of common sense and allow our children to be children for as long as they are entitled to be?