British children are pushed too hard, too early at school. One writer explains how daughters read less but learnt a lot more in Africa.
From The Times, January 5, 2010 by Penny Marshall
When we took Jessie, our four-year-old daughter, away from her reception class at a London primary school and plonked her in a school in South Africa, we knew that the contrast would be drastic. We didn’t know how fundamentally it would change her – and change our views on primary education.
Jessica, like her two younger sisters, was of course destined for the best secondary school that we could find, and that had meant early precision planning almost from the moment of conception to get her into the best primary feeder school for secondary success. For that success, whether in the state or the private sector, doesn’t come easily.
So we moved house into the catchment area for the best state school and also took Jessie, then aged 3, to be “tested” at a series of private London day schools. I remember her being led away from us by a kindly elderly lady in a two-piece woollen suit to be interviewed on her own. She was still almost a toddler.
The pair disappeared behind a large oak-panelled door and I was left in the hall, thinking that the assessor had power over my daughter’s entire educational future.
When Jessie was “selected” for the private day school, we accepted the place and I was certain that we had set her on a clear path to adult success. She soon started at the single-sex hothouse school, which “guaranteed” excellent entry results to many of the leading London day schools. I felt that I could relax: job done.
Jessie had been unable to read at all when she started school four months after her fourth birthday, but she sprinted through the Biff and Chip books that she brought home faster than I could tick them off on the parental reading chart. Faster, I noticed with some satisfaction, than many of her little classmates with whose mothers I discreetly compared progress each day in the playground.
I dismissed Jessie’s morning tummy aches as normal pre-school nerves that she would soon grow out of. Neither did I think it odd at the time that one of her four-year-old friends was being taken to and from school in a pushchair, frantically sucking her thumb and stroking a muslin cloth. Her mother explained that the long school day “left her too exhausted to walk”.
When my husband was offered a job in South Africa in the spring of Jessie’s first school year, the only downside seemed to be that, for the two years we would be there, our daughters would miss out on their excellent English primary education. I remember promising Jessie’s head teacher that she would keep up her Oxford Reading Tree commitments when she started her new life under African skies. The need to stay “on target” for that 11-plus, even in Africa, was paramount.
In return, the school said that it would keep Jessie’s place open for her until we came back to Britain. All I had to do was to hire a tutor for her in South Africa because formal education there doesn’t begin until the age of 6 or 7. Jessie was facing a two-year “book-free zone” – a potential academic disaster.
In fact, it didn’t take me long to realise that two years without books was the best gift that any mother could have given a child emerging from that early English educational experience.
From the day Jessie was assessed in South Africa, it was clear that we had a problem. In London she was judged “highly academic”. In South Africa she was designated “special needs”. Pretoria, the state capital, was teeming with the children of diplomats and NGO workers from all over the world and educationists there were used to dealing with the offspring of their international visitors. “Don’t worry,” the child psychologist told me, “we see this all the time with children from your private and public
There was I, bursting with pride because Jessie was practically reading Harry Potter at the age of 4, being told that there was a problem because she couldn’t stand on one leg and maintain balance for any length of time with her eyes closed.
It took us four months of swimming, tree-climbing and sunshine to get Jessie out of the “monkey puzzle” room (their term for special needs) and a further two months of bush walking, beaches, African singing and trampolining to forget about the tutor altogether and donate all her Oxford Reading Tree books to charity.
Jessie, like her sisters, learnt nothing “formal” during her time in South Africa but absorbed more than she needed to through play to keep abreast – and, at times, ahead of – her peers back home. She and her sisters started school at 8am, kicked off their shoes outside the classroom and returned home for lunch at 1pm for an afternoon of more play, this time outside and unstructured.
There were no tests, no talk of “correct pencil grips”, no enforced “writing” at tables dividing them into the “bright” and “not-so-bright” ones (don’t tell me that children don’t know the difference between the “triangle” and “circle” groups. Our adult codes conceal nothing). And, crucially, there was no pressure.
We stayed there for six years instead of two, and our daughters all returned to the English system enriched by their “lack” of education and able to fit right back into the academic classroom without any fuss. They were aged 10, 8 and 6 when we came home and “caught up” within a term. Jess even passed the dreaded 11-plus that was her promised portal to a “leading day school”. But she didn’t go: there is more to education than Biff and Chip.
One of the best experiences that the girls had in South Africa was learning African music, singing a cappella with a Zulu teacher at a Rudolph Steiner school, although they didn’t attend the school full-time. The teacher would not let me, or them, see any sheet music or read any lyrics as we learnt the songs – something that I found extremely difficult and they didn’t. “The children must use their memories and ears only,” their teacher told me. “Music must be learnt in the heart and not in the brain. In your country, you know only how to learn with the brain.”
When we came home to England, we, like our daughters, had been changed by the experience and looked for alternatives to that “brain-only” approach to learning. We decided that Jessie would not return to the pressurised hothouse from whence she came. She and her sisters went instead to a local church primary With the eyes of a newcomer, I could see that pushy parents wanting results were as much a part of the problem as the targets and testing that their children were being forced to endure. In conversation with other parents at dinner parties, I was horrified by the competitive obsession with secondary school entry.
But what else is there in this country for parents who, like me, shun the targets, testing and early academic pressure?
In the private sector, high-profile schools offering alternative approaches, such as Summerhill in Suffolk, are still mostly considered options for the rich and eccentric only. But there are a growing number of private Steiner and Montessori primary schools emerging to cater for parents seeking a different approach. Among the 32 Steiner schools in Britain is one in Greenwich, southeast London, that is run by a group of parents who were so determined to offer their children an alternative primary education that ten years ago they founded their own school. It now has 47 boys and 39 girls.
The Steiner movement also has its first state-funded school, established last year in Hereford. Recently the school appeared in the national league tables for 11-year-olds’ test results – at the very bottom. But that’s because it doesn’t believe in testing and so opted out of SATs.
Steiner schools offer an alternative approach to learning. Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was an Austrian philosopher who established his first school in 1919 for the children of workers at the WaldorfAstoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart. He argued that children’s creative, spiritual and moral dimensions need as much attention as their intellectual one. Schools bearing his name begin formal education as the child reaches 6 or 7. Their founder also believed – before Jamie Oliver told us so – that children could not learn well without a healthy, cooked midday meal.
Critics of Steiner schools see them as soft, suspiciously spiritual and woolly places lacking in academic discipline. They claim that they are staffed by idealists and attended by the children of the “knit-your-own yoghurt” brigade. Enthusiasts counter that these are not schools where children are allowed to do what they like but schools where children like what they do.
Those in the Steiner movement believe that more state-funded Steiner schools are likely as the debate about primary education intensifies here. There are also plans for the first state-funded Montessori primary in inner-city Liverpool. It’s not so much that the Government is championing either of these educational approaches: rather, the argument is that if choice is available for those who can pay, it should be offered to those who can’t pay as well.
Those seeking alternatives for their children can also choose primary schools that dare to put happiness before league tables – which is what we did when we came home. They can also join me in praying for a much-needed backlash to this obsession with early academic success.
The increasing calls for SATs to be scrapped suggest that this backlash may already be happening – as does the recent Cambridge Review of Education, a carefully researched report written by Professor Robin Alexander. This was the most significant review of primary education in 40 years – and among its recommendations is a call for a later start in formal schooling (age 6 rather than age 4), such as my children had in South Africa. It also recommends a less academic focus in the early school years.
Our daughters are now at three different secondary schools – and have finally stopped walking barefoot down our West London street as if they were still in the African veldt. Jessie is 16 and enjoys all that it means to be a young woman in the city. She attends a church comprehensive where she is doing her A levels (including music) and is planning a summer of volunteer work in South Africa. And she, like her sisters, can also still stand on one leg for a long time with her eyes closed.