School started again this week – not that you would have known that because I’ve not mentioned AT ALL over the past month or so – and First and Second Offspring went back to school, while Third Offspring is easing into her first weeks at kindergarten. She seems to have taken it all in her stride, while First and Second Offspring are happy to be back with their friends and rediscovering their routine.
And I’m enjoying that too, because the walk to school and back with them everyday is a great time to talk and listen to their stories, and find out about how they’re going. On our second day, I asked First Offspring whether he was concentrating in class so far. “Sometimes,” was the rather non-committal answer. I asked this because last year’s report indicated that while he appears capable of understanding the work, he is not so interested about putting the effort in to do it. This was absolutely no surprise to the Handsome Sidekick and me. We think First Offspring is smart enough. He just likes to chat to his friends. A lot.
For a moment, when I looked through his grades (mostly Cs), I was disappointed. It’s not like this is difficult stuff he’s doing. He comes home and seems to have a strong grasp of the concepts. We talk about what he’s doing in class and extend that with other information and real-world stories. I don’t have any illusions about him being a A-student, but I did think he might have a few more Bs.
But then, I thought, he’s seven. Do I really want to start worrying about his grades when he’s so little? Of course, we insist on the importance of school to all of them, telling them how much it will help them when they get older, no matter what they want to do with their lives. Education is something very close to my heart – not just because I’ve been involved in the system as a teacher, but also because I spent a long time as a student. I really want them to enjoy school and get the most out of it.
However, I also rail against the seriousness with which standardised testing is discussed, and the emphasis which is placed on children’s ability to score well in such assessments. A year ago, when First Offspring was in Year 2, we had a meeting with his teacher, who told us that the national testing which occurs in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 was now directly linked to the funding the school receives. Therefore, most of Year 2 would be preparation for the tests which occurred in the second term of Year 3.
I understand the need to ensure that children are assessed from time to time to pick up learning difficulties or disabilities, or to make sure that there is a general standard so that there can be movement between schools without major disruption, but this insistence that it is the be-all-and-end-all of education bothers me greatly. What about tailoring the learning to the students? What about general knowledge, or a spontaneous lesson about echidnas? What about fun?
And it’s not just at primary school level. The carer at Fourth Offspring’s daycare asked me just before Christmas if I’d like to come to a meeting to discuss the programme they’re implementing for his age group. They wanted to talk about their learning goals and the outcomes they want to achieve with the children over the next year. As it was, I was too busy to attend, but I did mention that I appreciated that they had standards and targets they were supposed to meet, but that Fourth Offspring is two-and-a-half. I don’t care about programmes. I care that when he goes to daycare, he is in a place where he is loved, and where he can explore safely but is still encouraged to take risks. Where he can play and socialise and have fun. Where he can be two-and-a-half years old.
Teachers and daycare providers are under financial pressure from governments, but they’re also under pressure from parents. We have become so obsessed with our children doing well, so worried about their ultimate success in life that we overschedule their days and weeks, and have unrealistic expectations about what they can and can’t do (and what they should be doing). Even as I know that I want our Offspring to relax, be themselves, enjoy their childhoods, I also worry that I’m holding them back by not joining the race to ensure my child is the highest-achieving, the most athletic, the most well-read, the best-educated person he or she can be. Intellectually, I know that they’ll be fine. The emphasis I’m placing on social skills and empathy and just hanging out being children is going to stand them in good stead. But I still feel that pressure. Nobody wants their children to be disadvantaged.
And it’s not healthy for parents, either. It creates a battleground where the children’s achievements become some trophy to fight over, and ruins the potential for the supportive network that we need. Instead of propping each other up and commiserating about sleepless nights or tantrums, we have to save face, and present our child as some kind of wunderkind. What’s the point?
So this year, and for the years to come, the tests that our Offspring have to do will be something we brush over. We’ll tell them that we expect them to do as well as they can, but that it doesn’t matter if it’s hard or they don’t know the answer. It’s just a test, and they’re still so young. They deserve to enjoy themselves. Life is short. It might as well be fun.