School is hard. I’m finding it a lot harder this time round than I did as a child. When you have a kid that finds it more difficult to do the things that many kids seem to breeze through, who is falling short of the new impossible targets, it can be very hard indeed.
My boy doesn’t worry about it. He enjoys school. He is cheerful and content in class, blissfully unaware – for the most part – that he isn’t measuring up to government standards, or that I am sometimes tied up in knots of worry. But my boy hasn’t read the rules. He hasn’t seen the list of things he is supposed to know by the end of the year. I have. And I know he isn’t going to tick all the right boxes. He may be funny and sweet and clever with a special and original way of looking at the world, but he struggles to join up his letters, so he fails. He can’t tell me what 7 X 8 is, so he misses the mark.
School work didn’t bother me at his age. I found it easy. But that is just because I was lucky. My head happens to work in the way they wanted it to. My boy’s head is a world of different. He doesn’t fit the mould, which makes him both wonderful and worrying. He doesn’t learn by rote. He lets thing wash over him. Some things stick, most don’t.
My boy is bendy too. He is hyper-mobile. Excellent for gymnastics. Not so good for handwriting. The look of concentration on his dear little face while he tries to join an F to an L is adorable. But you don’t get points for adorable. You don’t get points for effort either. These days, you either join up your writing or your writing is deemed to be substandard, no matter how perfect the content.
My boy is incredible. The extra effort he has to put in must make his school day a lot harder than it is for most. But he never wants to miss school. He never feigns illness to have a duvet day. He skips in happily.
My boy is the most loyal friend you could wish for. He gets on with everyone but he is devoted to the special few, his very best mates. He looks out for them, is kind, would never be deliberately hurtful or play them off against each other. He is all wide-eyed innocence and shock in the face of such behaviour from others. But there are no tick boxes for kindness and loyality.
I am a worrier. I always have been. My husband and my parents tell me not to sweat it, that he is only seven, that he will find his niche and it will all fall into place soon enough. They are probably right. I really hope they are right. But I can’t help but worry because I want to protect him. I want to protect him from feeling like he has failed because he hasn’t ticked the right boxes. Because the skills and talents he has are not valued as highly as those others have, so they score zero.
I am on a learning curve that I don’t think the government understands. I am learning that hitting the academic mark isn’t the only measure of a child’s success. My amazing little boy is teaching me that. He has a wonderful attitude, is positive and keen, and I worry about him losing that with the realisation that he is struggling with some of their targets.
Our school is great at supporting kids like H who need a little extra help with things. They see and value the whole child and give him all the help he needs. But so much of it is out of their hands. These tick boxes come from on high, from politicians attempting to woo their aging conservative voters who think that learning the times tables by heart was good enough for them, so should be inflicted upon the youth of today.
But I am overstating things, as I am prone to do. He is doing OK. He is keeping up, just about. I have been so impressed by how he has improved with his reading and writing recently that I was feeling pretty confident. But at a parents’ meeting at school last night all the targets were listed as the new curriculum kicks in. Standards have gone up. Reaching an acceptable level is now that much harder. This is pretty scary when your child wasn’t even hitting the old averages.
I sat through the meeting, biting my lip, trying to keep the bubbling emotion inside me at bay, as I heard about the hoops that have to be jumped through to make my boy ‘secondary ready’ in just three and a half short years. There are targets on the list that he won’t hit this year, no matter what any of us do. He may not hit them at all. Does it really matter in life if he cannot join up his letters and recite his twelve times table? Of course not. But being perceived to have failed to meet the standard might just matter. There may come a point when empty tick boxes matter a lot. Because there may come a time when he will care deeply.
We are certainly not alone. That much I know. There are parents up and down the country worrying about their little ones. The creative ones, the ones who think differently, the ones who have a lot to offer but not necessarily the things on the government’s list. There will be other parents worried in his school, in his class. Us worriers will read the list of targets and our hearts will sink. We will work extra hard, do extra maths and reading at home, work on our kids’ confidence with lots of praise for the small wins.
But no matter what I do, I am certain there will be empty tick boxes come July. There will be empty tick boxes in three and half years too, on the eve of secondary school. Because my wonderful, kind, creative, imaginative little lad does not always fit in the box, let alone know how to tick it. Because one size does not fit all. Because no matter how fantastic your school is, the system of measuring achievement for little ones in this country is too rigid. It does not leave room to appreciate the many talents and incredible facets of the wonderfully varied little people that we are raising.
This makes me sometimes sad and sometimes cross. But mostly it just makes me worry and wish there was a better way.
What we have to do is help him to do his best and make sure he understands that there is more to life than ticking boxes. We have to make damn sure that he knows that we appreciate him for who he is and for what he is good at. Even if the powers that be don’t.
My brilliant boy.