Let our kids be kids – by not striking

May 3, 2016

This morning, thousands of children and parents went on strike in protest at the Year 2 SATs. A woman on the radio told a story about how her daughter had been placed under such intolerable pressure that she was coming home crying, and waking up with nightmares. As a parent of two small children myself, my heart broke. My goodness, I thought. What an awful way for the school to behave.

Because make no mistake – any situation in which a 6 year old is driven to tears is entirely the fault of the adults around them. If children are stressed about these tests – which have no consequence for them– then they have picked that up directly from the attitudes and behaviours of home and school which have then been communicated to them.

Yes, these tests have accountability consequences for schools and so put pressure on heads and teachers. But if being a professional, especially one who works with young people – or frankly, if simply being an adult – means anything, it means having the maturity to absorb that pressure rather than passing it on to small children. Similarly, as a parent, your job is to protect your child from issues which are not appropriate. I worry about world events, about bills, about my family’s future. But I don’t expect my small children to share those worries. It is my job to nurture them, to help them grow up, and to protect them whilst doing so, which means allowing them to experience issues at a time that is right for them. And it means making clear to others, including their school, when I feel that the messages coming from them are unreasonable.

Going on strike, by contrast, is a terrible message to give to children. First and foremost, it is likely to cause them further stress, as they are now torn between two authority figures in their lives; parents withdrawing them from school at the exact time which the school says is so important. It also gives children a message that to some extent, schooling is a choice, and that as a child you don’t have to on occasion do things you might not want to.

The government doesn’t escape all the blame here. The preparation for these new tests has been rushed, advice has on occasion been contradictory, and the mistake with the leaking of a test paper online has sapped confidence from many. But the general principle they are setting is surely right – a curriculum which expects nothing less from our children than is expected of children in other high performing countries around the world, and an accountability system which seeks to measure children’s progress and holds schools accountable for the outcomes.

This does mean tougher material for children to learn and new content for teachers to master. But those proudly proclaiming that they don’t know these grammatical terms, or basic numeracy, and have done fine are perpetuating a grave injustice on future generations. The truth is either that they have learned them subconsciously, or they have succeeded against the odds. Is that really what we want for the next generation? Similarly, those who argue for creativity and positivity in schools, as opposed to ‘factory style’ education, miss the point entirely. I have never been in a primary school, including ones with outstanding literacy and numeracy scores, that isn’t a hive of colour and activity; displays on the walls, children engaged in all sorts of games; music, art and drama bursting from every classroom and along every corridor. But the truth is that to be a creative genius, for all but the rare autodiact, requires an understanding of the basics. Great authors, leading artists, wonderful musicians, outstanding sportsmen – they all understand the basic building blocks of language, of numbers, of science, and of logic. It is only by mastering these basics that anyone – young or old – can build on them and go on to truly be creative in whatever field they choose.

The ‘Let Our Kids Be Kids’ movement, in claiming to protect children, actually does them harm, by abdicating all responsibility from all the adults involved in the system. There are thousands of schools up and down the country who are actually letting kids be kids, by educating them with an outstanding mixture of literacy and numeracy and play and creativity, and overseeing the tests in a calm and reasoned manner. They should be the ones lauded – not the strikers who are using their children to play politics.

This piece was originally posted on Newsweek’s website

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