In the week that children go back to school here in the UK, I find myself thinking about going to school for the first time. I’m going to cut to the chase here: if children need to be in school, then starting school at the age of four is just too early. What is it they can possibly learn at such a time in their lives that they can’t get elsewhere? There will be educationalists out there who will be shouting out (with as much fervour as a playworker does about the child’s right to play) that children can only benefit in the area of lifelong learning from an early and solid educational institution start: let’s see.
What I’ve done during the week will find its way into this blog, and what I’ve done in this respect will be work with children or play with family children. Either way, starting from what we’ve seen and experienced will inform what we write down in better ways than just leafing through the papers. This week I spent time with three family pre-schoolers out in the forest.
As the children ran around, chasing each other along the dirt tracks and through the ferns, over the dried up stream beds, the youngest being a dinosaur, the others screaming and taking all sorts of random routes around, I watched on, thinking: next week the eldest will be in school. She might love it, but she might find it a complete shock to the system. What can a four-year-old learn there that can’t be learned out amongst the pine trees, where the sun slops through, the play just taking the children away?
Out in the forest they get to make their own decisions about which way they go, to count if they want to, to see things they haven’t yet got names for, and to find out what those names are, to understand what can and shouldn’t be done in the real world (eat the black berries but not the red ones, said their mum). In school, wrapped into a grey uniform, expected to sit still for lengthier periods than normal (despite, perhaps, a developmental state that bucks against this), expected to conform to others’ bizarre and often unintelligible rules, the lifeblood starts its early drain away from the children.
So, the counter-argument is, I suppose, that school sets in motion the ‘training for life’: the expectancy of society that children ought to get used to. I have said it before and so I repeat it here: things don’t have to be the way that ‘society is’ — things can be different. What can four-year-olds need of learning to wait for teacher to talk to them that those children can’t get in their play with other children? It’s a big world, sure, and we have to work out how to get along with one another, but we all have to do the ‘manning up’ business. If one four-year-old doesn’t want to share his stick/rock/chalk with another four-year-old then ‘manning up’ is the order of the day, not learning to listen to others by means of enforced adult strategies.
I use the examples of stick and rock and chalk deliberately: how do we think our ancestors ever coped on this insignificant little outpost of rock in the middle of space and nowhere? Now though I swing from the harsh right to the more liberal middle: better that we as adults understand and communicate on play terms with our children than we neglect them or forcibly instruct them on ways of interacting ‘for the good of society’? For the good of the Cause, perhaps? I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to suggest that, in certain quarters, there’s a tyranny of adults.
It’s interesting to read, in the same week as school starting again for the autumn term, that the UK government proposes that school leavers should carry on studying English and maths up to the age of 18 if they don’t get a grade C GCSE at 16 years of age (Teenagers have to keep studying English and maths). Whilst, on paper, the sentiment to provide young people with the requisite literacy and numeracy skills to get on might be well-meaning, it does all rather strike me as a cynical way of keeping those young people from the jobless figures; or, ultimately, it creates a way for those young adults to ‘fit in’ and so to suitably serve society, the State, the Cause, call it what you will.
In a small leap of the imagination, I imagine pensioners, years down the line, sat at their school desks, still not being allowed to blink out into the sunlight, drained of all their play life and, indeed, their will to live. ‘Just let me pass my GCSE now so I can go crawl under a rock!’ OK, so I exaggerate a little!
Here’s an idea, which isn’t new, but does need repeating again and again by all of us who believe in it: maybe this ‘start school early, leave late (and later)’ isn’t working. In 1972 the school age was eventually raised to 16. This was just a couple of years shy of my entering the system at the other end. I was duly released within the agreed time frame. My acquired study system was to effectively take a visual snapshot of pages of my revision notes, or to rigorously commit tried and tested methods to memory. I memorised my way through my O-levels (yes, younglings, those old-fangled now worthless things, though not as old-fangled as the eleven-plus: your spangly new GCSEs, and whatever the government might want to shove your children’s way soon, will be equally as worthless in the fullness of time). Everything fell out of my head when I left the exam room because I didn’t need it any more. After I was released I really started learning things because I was interested in what I chose to learn.
There is no use in life for quadratic equations, standard deviation, sines, cosines and the other one I’ve forgotten (unless you want to be an engineer: working out what you want to be, more often than not, comes later in life — wanting to be a vet at the age of four, or even fourteen, might well turn into wanting to be a hairdresser the next day). Now, I’m all for the idea of children being able to count and being able to write correctly, but they come to it when they’re ready. In the meantime, running around in a forest for the afternoon with friends or brothers and sisters or cousins, with loving communicative parents and other adults who just ‘get it’, will surely give a child much more than a week sat in a training room (classroom) in the preparation that is ‘the first steps on the long journey of normalisation’.
In a 2007 UNICEF report, Child poverty in perspective: an overview of child well-being in rich countries, the UK ranked overall 21st out of 21 developed nations regarding six aspects: material well-being, health and safety, educational well-being, family and peer relationships, behaviours and risks, and subjective well-being. There’s plenty to digest in this document but it’s to one part of it that I draw particular attention: in the area of ‘subjective well-being’ (with the UK ranked here as 20th out of 21), the report states — with reference to the most recent Health Behaviour in School-Age Children survey, albeit of 2001 (p.38) — that only 19% of fifteen-hundred cluster-surveyed 11, 13 and 15 year-olds claimed to ‘like school a lot’ (out of this option or ‘I like it a bit’, ‘I don’t like it very much’, or ‘I don’t like it at all’).
Statistics can always be manipulated so you should draw your own conclusions, but it makes for interesting reading for this analyst. Perhaps running around in a forest for a few years longer might have improved those children’s sense of their own self-being: they wouldn’t have had to wear grey if they didn’t want to, sit still for longer than they were able to, or learn some adult’s way of communicating this particular way; they would have worn the dirt of the dried up stream beds on their clothes and in their hair and on their faces, the sunlight sploshing through the pine trees onto their heads and skins; they would have taken their own routes and found their own moments of inspiration and interest, moving or sitting as the whim took them; they would have shouted down the dirt tracks because shouting out loud in forests is what forests sometimes inspire you to do.