Monday, 7 October 2013

Blue Sky Thinking

Three of our children attend an excellent private school which my brother and I also attended (many!) years ago. Our eldest has flourished there, really come into his own taking advantage of so many of the opportunities on offer - but interestingly very much in his own time. Initially he was wary of over-commitment and worked hard on the academic stuff, biding his time to leap into the unknown. This came relatively late, after several years of us wondering whether his laid back approach was really what we had hoped for when sending him there!

But you have to trust your children, give them the tools and opportunities and be there in a supportive - NOT a driving - role.


And leap he did. Admittedly initially outside school but he joined the local Athletics Club and got seriously bitten by the running bug. He excelled in school at both Athletics and Cross Country and is now Captain of Cross a year early. He taught himself to drum to participate in a friend's band, taught himself to code in Java and has now set up his own server business - and he's not quite 16. He's mildly dyslexic too - but took time to come to grips with any difficulties and works extra hard when necessary to achieve excellent results. Yet not once in his life have we ever cracked the whip, nagged him over homework or managed his time for him. We respect him as an individual and believe in guidance and support, not micro-management when it comes to parenting.

We chose private education because of opportunity. I am firmly opposed to "hot housing" of any kind, and apart from working bloody hard for my Upper Sixth year I enjoyed school and relished all opportunities to participate in everything I could - both inside and outside school. Choir, Drama, Music, Sport - even WI village pantomimes, one right before my A level mocks. And interestingly, do you know what I find truly fascinating? The activities and events which really stick in my mind now at 40 are those I achieved something new in, tried something different and grew as a person whilst participating.



Now before my father writes me an email saying it sounds as if the money spent on my education was wasted, far from it. Your education is a springboard for life. It gives you skills, knowledge, and that "O" word again - opportunities that you simply cannot easily find anywhere else. Which is why I am so alarmed at what is happening in my son's school - and also in so many private AND state schools in this country right now under the current government.

Our Headteacher has fallen hook, line and sinker for the "Growth Mindset" espoused by Dweck  which insists that aspirations and hard work are more important for achievement than innate intelligence. I certainly believe that this is a factor in achievement, but we are not all the same. Some have gifts others don't possess, some have difficulties in areas such as spelling which others never have an issue in. The worrying logical conclusion to this - and if you read Dweck's work it's not the intended one - is that anything is achievable by hard work. And THIS is what is damaging my son's school. From Year 3/ age 7 children are being directed to work hard and long to achieve, with work loads increasing exponentially as the years go by. Parent after parent says this is NOT what they envisaged for their children, we all bought into a school package - NOT a "life package". This weekend my seven year olds had one homework only - and the difference was astonishing. Imaginative play, construction play and relaxing to start with. And then one composed a piano piece whilst the other learned a new song. Maths problems from the initial homework were sought and tackled, voluntarily, and we enjoyed a family walk and long discussions on nature the second day. All felt rested, connected and more content. I would argue more learning was done this weekend than any weekend so far this term!


Yet with the current government's aspirations for Education things are only going to get worse country-wide and from an alarmingly young age. Early Years experts are being ousted in favour of highly qualified academics. Curriculum targets and goals are formalised and everyone immediately becomes more concerned with achievements rather than environment and inspiration. Opportunity and encouragement. We are forgetting that basic fact - that children WANT to learn, they are insatiably curious and really, our role is much less involved than we would like to think. 

We've already endured Labour's over-zealous commitment to "Health and Safety" with play so sidelined in the primary curriculum and Social Services waiting to accuse families for letting their children be children, now we have a Conservative Government seeking to further strait jacket our children by taking education back to the 1950s.


Sounds quite innocuous, doesn't it. Even desirable. Maybe.... but personally apart from the mental image of little Lord Fauntleroys lining up to read Milton in class I am most concerned about what is not listed in these proposals.

The issue is also very relevant higher up the school ladder and in both private and public sectors. Working children to death stifles creativity, reduces the chance of them ever managing their free time without adult intervention because their every waking minute is managed for them. It honestly doesn't bring about better results. There is a definite threshold below which you reduce achievement, but a nervous breakdown doesn't bring the same UCAS points let alone valuable life experience as writing your own piece of music, participating in a band, undertaking and planning Gold D of E, starting your own business, producing a play, starring in that play... it's all about opportunities, support, enthusiasm - and time.

Opportunity, growth, education, and a "hands off" ethos - isn't that really what the Conservatives are supposed to stand for? Not Big State, Big Government,  but decent old fashioned Liberal values.
The agreed definition of learning seems to be the bone of contention here.  I would argue that learning is never confined to the school room and we should refrain as far as possible from imposing artificial boundaries on learning and education as far as possible - rather than seeking to impose more and instil amongst a generation that learning "facts" and dry information is the way ahead.

Whilst a National Curriculum was in many ways a step forward, it also removed the possibility of pursuing children's natural curiosity. Of basing an entire day around something brought into discussion, using Maths, English and other subjects as that topic is explored. It also gave governments the opportunity to interfere at a level never seen before in this country. But as is so poignantly captured in the famous Animal School video on YouTube we are all different and need our learning opportunities to be different too. One curriculum might satisfy many, but it will need to be taught in many different ways to meet everyone's needs. Learning should be age appropriate at all levels. Variety, excitement, inspiration, these are not adjectives which leap out from the proposals. Rather death by admin and marking for teachers and pupils so overworked that they drop extra curricular commitments in their droves, scared they cannot do both. But (as our school so rightly says) these are CO curricular, adding huge value to education, not optional extras to be sidelined higher up the school.

I honestly think if ANY government actually wakes up to the fact that teachers are professionals and actually - shock horror - know children better than ministers in Whitehall then there would be far less need for endless White Papers trying to manufacture the perfect form of education. And those ministers could learn a lot from children too.

Brian Cox's "Science Britannica" was very interesting. Discussing the role of "Blue Skies" Science as  valid and essential is incredibly relevant to Education today. Applied Science is necessary and valuable. It solves problems we know need solving. But the *really* interesting discoveries come from the "Blue Skies" type of scientific exploration where the usual constraints are removed, where we don't even know the problem let alone how to reach the solution. Interest and opportunity coupled with an enquiring mind and natural intelligence is the perfect mixture for truly astounding progress. And time. Because so often true learning only comes when we learn to think "out of the box". Hard work alone will only ever get you so far - without time, you cannot make that extra leap to excellence. As Cox put it so well you need "Time to let the Dreamers Dream".




24 comments:

  1. I too worry about trying to squeeze children into boxes, we need to celebrate what makes us all unique and special. Our children are so much more than cogs in the economic machine. I attended a grammar school, which I found utterly stifling as I am naturally drawn to creative pursuits, and this was not encouraged at all- there was no room for different ways of thinking. Conversely my eldest attended a very successful comprehensive- with not only a great academic record- but also a plethora of facilities for all sorts of different ways to express yourself- music, photography, sport etc

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  2. There needs to be a way for children to flourish as individuals. I worry about when Baby starts school, what happens if she gets a poor teacher or has any issues. It is worrying x

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  3. I think each child is so completely different and their needs need to be supported individually. Some children are naturally gifted on the traditional 'learning' front whereas others prefer the more hands on, manual approach. I suppose it is always going to be difficult for schools to cater for every need and I am a strong believer in helping our children to learn at home as much as possible too.

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  4. I hate to think what will happen if these reforms go through. I want my child to have the freedom to be able to choose that what interests him most, whether it is academics or the creative arts. I do not want anybody dictating anything to him.

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  5. I agree and as a childminder I see what ridiculous hoops Ofsted want me to jump through which not only don't benefit the baby/child, but actually harm their natural learning. Grrrr!

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  6. I agree with so much you have written here and it relates to my post today about children having the time and space to be creative. I was not happy with my children being so moulded at school which is why three years ago I took them out and now home educate them. We have a lot of fun learning together and my children are the ones who direct the learning, they'll tell me what they want to learn about and then we'll incorporate maths, science, English and so on.

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  7. I do think that every child learns differently, and that needs to be recognised. I think we already have far to much of a tick box culture in education, and teach children to pass exams rather than giving them an education for life. Only time will tell how things come about I suppose - I just wish it wasn't our childrens futures they were gambling with x

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  8. Gosh you're so right. Today we had an unexpectedly free afternoon, and the amount that we achieved was more than we ever do when our activities are prescribed. Kids also need time to come to terms with events of the day, and sometimes, to set the world to rights with a parent in a way that is only possible when there's some relaxed time to let things out gradually.

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  9. Good points. I like the idea of the kids having opportunity too, so we try to give them the chance to try new activities when money allows and do things as a family which will help them learn.

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  10. Too flipping right. I wrote a similar-ish post a while ago about how creativity cannot be taught which pretty much echoes what you've written here... We can squash these brilliant, inquisitive little minds into the tightest of boxes but who is really benefiting other than the paperwork-happy, clueless ministers?

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  11. Very interesting and thought provoking post. I agree with a lot of what you've said, especially about children learning differently and needing age appropriate learning.

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  12. I agree that learning is becoming more linear and tested and though it is good for some kids, it is bad for others. The thing is this subject leaves me torn as I have both - a gifted high achiever that loves this new curriculum and a special needs child that though is very smart will have to jump through hoops to achieve. It is a very tough question, what is right. Am I right to expect others to study in either of their paces? of course not, and school has to find a middle ground with a special help for each child. It is hard, but the good school manage to.
    But homework on the weekend? That is where I draw the line. :)

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  13. Thing is Orli - same here. And it's the most gifted children who need this space to think. School actually gets in the way for the one of mine who is gifted. It strait jackets him ;)

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  14. Very interesting and I agree, children need the time to learn through play and their own exploration, trying to force feed a child is not going to work. Every child learns in their own way at their own pace.
    Thanks for linking #LetKidsBekids

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  15. Totally agree! Children should be free to explore their interests and reive receive the correct level work for their abilities to flourish.
    Teachers certainly know children better than the government x

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  16. This is such a good post. I am so fed up with clueless government types thinking they know what is best for children whilst disregarding every bit of research telling them the complete opposite, and the opinions and experiences of those that actually WORK with children! argh

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  17. I agree totally. Like Sophie I am a childminder and Ofsted makes us jump through unnecessary hoops just to tick boxes that don't need ticking.

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  18. I'm desperately disappointed by what schooling is becoming in this country. It's awful.

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    1. Almost as bad as the Health Service. Wondering why we turned down several overseas jobs now...

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  19. I find the education system so frightening and outdated. It's such a shame that schools are now so money orientated that much less thought goes into the children and their needs.

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  20. This is such an interesting post. I believe that the UK education system seems o failing our children and taking step onto a dangerous path with early examination and not catering for the individuals needs. x

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  21. Schools need more freedom and not restrictions.
    Putting all kids into the same box doesn't work and it will never work... why politicians don' know it?!
    Or they do and just don't care?

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  22. All so true. Our children are all different, and need to learn in different ways. A mass produced factory line is not going to turn out well-rounded individuals. I love our country for the fact that it is a bit quirky, and generally caring, and I don't want to see us turned into a military operation.

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  23. It feels like you've climbed inside my head here Kate. I know you posted this almost 18 months ago, but its still very relevant. I wrote this the other day, not feeling great about school tbh...http://www.mummytries.com/?p=5301

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Many thanks for taking the time to comment, I really value your responses.

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