I went into Waterstones the other day. I was supposed to be buying my mum a birthday present, but, as is my wont, I happened into a book shop as I just happened to be passing. Knowing that I didn’t have much time within which to complete my shopping, I hurried past those tempting tables of books, the ones where I used to spend quite considerable amounts of my hard-earned cash, and headed instead to the back of the shop, to where the children’s books are.
I love children’s books. I love reading them, and I love buying them for my children, but I wasn’t looking for something to keep them entertained. No, I went for a small corner tucked away to one side; the corner where they keep those books full of revision materials, or practice 11+ tests. I patiently waited for a nice looking couple to move on, and then it was my turn. I riffled through the books, looking for one in particular.
My younger son, A, you see, is in Year 6 at primary school. This is the year that is focussed on the end of key stage tests. In about three weeks’ time he will have his reading, writing, spelling, grammar and maths tested, and his teachers, his school, will be judged by the marks he gets. As his academically achieving mother (although not as brainy as his father), I would like him to do well, so, knowing what I do, having taught Year 6 myself before, I thought I’d get him a revision book. Maths. The subject he flaps about, for some unknown reason.
There I was, book in hand, flicking through the pages, thinking how long it was, how much of it he would have to get through in a short period of time, when I suddenly found myself asking a question. Just what was I doing?
Now, I have found myself in the unenviable position of disagreeing internally many times on the issue of homework with my children’s primary school. Sam has always been the most reluctant of home workers, and his little brother and sister have pretty much followed in his footsteps in their dislike of worksheets that encroach upon their free time. As a teacher-mother, I have seen how hard kids work in school, and I can’t imagine that my own are great exceptions to this observation. I have seen how tired they are, how they kick off their shoes and lie, comatose, upon the sofa on their return home, how much they need instant feeding.
And, after all those years of kicking against the traces of homework that encroaches upon family time, A’s teacher has done something I think is eminently sensible. He has given him no homework to do over the Easter holidays. Despite those tests, there is no revision, no ten questions a day, nothing.
Instead of sitting at a table, sweating over calculations that worry him, A has been busy on a whole lot of other stuff. Last week he was in his first ever play – at a real theatre, mark you. He has, for the first time in his life, experienced the jolly japes of backstage, the satisfaction that comes of overcoming your very real stage fright. He has learnt his lines, and sung songs of far greater complexity than he has ever done before. He has made friends with children who don’t go to his school, been looked after by incredibly talented older kids whose age I can’t work out (they seem everso big to me).
And when he hasn’t been performing he’s been out in the glorious sunshine, building dens and digging holes with other little boys who live nearby. He’s played Minecraft with his little sister until the cows came home. He’s stayed up late reading Swallows and Amazons. He’s disappeared into enormous play parks with friends he only sees in the holidays. He’s been to visit a newly refurbished local art gallery. After a busy term where, along with the rest of us, he’s struggled along being just under the weather, he has relaxed.
It’s been lovely.
So what was I doing with that Maths book in my hand? Sometimes I find it hard to switch between my two roles: teacher-mother. As a teacher I want my boy to do well, to show what he’s capable of. I want him to work hard, do his best, and take a number up to secondary school that will mean he finds himself swimming in the right set, preferably not one where there are kids for whom behaving well and working hard is an anathema. As a mother I find it difficult when everyone seems to be talking about which school their kid is going to, what level their kid is at.
Because, you see, for a long time, I never had to put up with any of that nonsense. For a long time, Sam, with his label and his disability, gave me a Get Out of Jail Free Card. Parental pissing contests don’t mean much when someone else, and their kid, is on a different track.
And in that bookshop, at the back and in the corner, I gave myself a talking to. As a teacher and a mother. I reminded myself of the decision I made, back when I was stuck in the maternity unit, waiting to be told that I could take my baby home. Back when Sam was only a few days old I realised that I didn’t have a baby so that he could reflect well on me. I didn’t have children so that I could live vicariously through them, or bask in their reflected glory. It was, and is, my privilege, and my responsibility to bring them up, to give them the foundations so that they can go on and live an independent life. The rest is up to them. My worth as a parent is, perhaps, only going to be known when they are parents themselves.
And I reminded myself that I am not a failure if my kids don’t live up to some arbitrary standard set up by someone else. I am not a failure, either mother or teacher, because the children don’t have the right number of chromosomes, or the ‘right’ letter or number following their names on a school tracking system. All I can do is my best, and sometimes, with no reference to me, other things happen.
And that’s why I don’t like the end of key stage tests.
Image courtesy of the BBC