My wish for 2014: let the children be

Janet Downs's picture
We used to think dysfunctional childhood was something experienced by a few.  But we are in danger of abolishing childhood in favour of a development stage in which all children are deadened.

Tested, Satted and phonicked – our children are subjected to a barrage of exams designed to measure what adults think they should be able to do.  And as in Lake Wobegon, all children must be above average.

School at two; shorter school holidays; longer school days: children are to be removed from their families to experience what some politicians think schools can do better: care for children.

But schools are for education not for child care.  And families are for love, food, warmth and fun.

Schools partner families in this – they do not, and should not, take over.

But childhood’s in danger of disappearing under a dreadnought of tests.  Our children are among the most measured in the world.  Few other countries force children to take eight to ten exams at age 16 – if there are such tests they are fewer in number and confined to core subjects.  They’re designed to decide post 16 progression not to measure how effective schools are in shoving their pupils through exams (or how well they discourage those whose presence would result in a fall in league table position).

Education in England is being reduced to that which can be measured.  Subjects essential for full development – art, music, PE – are being sidelined in favour of more time spent preparing pupils for tests.

That’s not to say the tested subjects aren’t important.  Of course they are.  But we’re in danger of losing sight of what these subjects are for.   Maths isn’t just algorithms – it’s the beauty of numbers, shapes, logic.  English isn’t just naming parts of speech and grammatical terms – it’s using them to persuade, describe and move.  Reading isn’t just decoding – it’s even more than comprehension.  It’s entering into an imaginative world which brings great joy and pleasure.

As bad as this debasement of education is, it’s worsened by the collusion of some families.   There was a time when activities outside school were for families to enjoy.  But it seems enjoyment has become a poor second to tutoring and training.  Nurture has been replaced by nagging.

It’s not enough any longer for children just to try their best – they must achieve Level 5, A*s, take first place, be in the top percentile.  Not to do so, in some schools, means withdrawal of approval.  And not to do so, in some Tiger families, means withdrawal of love. 

So, my wish for 2014 is not for myself but for all children and young people from 0 to 18:

Hey, adults, leave those kids alone.

Let them be.  Just let them BE.  How can the bird that is born for joy sit in a cage and sing?
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