It’s a funny thing, the factors you apply when you are looking for a school for your darling children to attend. When we were looking for the right secondary school for Sam we looked around two, one mainstream and one special, and before we even stepped over the threshold I was breaking my heart over the decision. Should we continue to keep him in the ‘real’ world, with the friends he’s made at primary school, or should we send him to the smaller, specialised institution where he’d be all on his own, but he wouldn’t be so lost? It was a big decision.
You’d think, with me being a teacher and all, that I’d be looking at standards and exam results and teaching styles and syllabuses and OfSted reports and all of that jazz. Were they progressive or traditional, did they engage with educational research, what was the proportion of children going on to Russell Group universities? All these are questions you would think I would be keen to have answers, but no. Maybe it’s a touch of arrogance on my part that these things don’t really matter that much to me as a mother. Maybe I take my understanding that learning is an active thing that children need to do themselves, an education is what they make of it, if you like, and that they do it sometimes in spite of us adults a bit far. But whatever it is, when we looked at prospective schools I had very different things in mind.
How big were the class sizes? How would a 1-1 TA work? How would he find his way between classes? Who were likely to be his friends? Who was going to makes sure that he wasn’t regularly knocked to the floor by passing big teens? How fiddly was the uniform? How would he manage his lunch? And, where would he play? What sort of things were there for him to do at break time? When we looked around, in the one school there were bikes and adventure playgrounds, in the other there were some tatty books, dirty Lego and a window overlooking a busy road. It was a no brainer, really.
It’s one of the things I like most about Sam’s special school, the care they take over his play, his social development. Every other week he attends a Forest School. Trips happen to local play parks. Sam is encouraged to take part in clubs and activities at break time (his current favourite is board games club). He is regularly reminded of the kind of things that friends do, how they play together. When we took him and a bunch of his friends and classmates out for his birthday I was touched.
There they were, charging around an indoor play area, playing a game. We stood, the parents and I, our metaphorical mouths hanging open with shock (well, mine, anyway) when no one had to intervene, no one had to show them what to do, suggest a game,sort out a fight. They organised themselves. When we went on a countryside walk last Easter (during an unexpected break from all that wet weather) we set off, and, instead of grumping and declaring that it was too far, or too steep or too much, Sam flung his arms wide and declared, loud and clear, ‘Come on, guys, let’s play!’
Not long ago I had the dubious privilege of accompanying a group of children to a ‘day out’ at a private school not too far from where I live. I say dubious because I am ideologically opposed to private education, not because I didn’t enjoy myself, you understand, and I came away with the surprising conclusion that we in the state sector could learn a good deal from the way they did things. But it wasn’t about class sizes, or standards, or behaviour or classroom facilities, or curricula, or any of those things that hit the headlines so often. It was play time.
There were three breaks in the day. And not only that, they were long ones. Teachers had the chance to set up their next lessons as well as go to the loo (and have a think while they were there) and have a chat with their colleagues in the staff room and a cup of coffee. But the children. They were bundled outside into the sort of grounds you see in public parks, and on with it they got. A couple of teachers stationed themselves in the centre, coffee (in uncovered cups, probably) in hand and chatting, and around them, children swung on rope swings, climbed trees and threw sticks to recover lost rockets, rolled down the hill and generally wore themselves out. They were provided with a snack (no mealy mouthed limp un-peeled carrots here, it was a sandwich and squash or water), and eventually returned to the classroom relaxed and sweaty.
It seemed to me that they had done the thing that we saw so clearly when we plumped for the special school. They had put the needs of the child first (not that the mainstream one hadn’t – there were other reasons for our decision too); they had understood the need of children to play, to run around, to find out what it feels like to fall out of a tree, figure things out without too much adult intervention. Children need to do this social learning, and, to be perfectly honest, they don’t do it shut up in airless classrooms, and they don’t do it when they experience the isolation peculiar to life with learning difficulties.
I think about the rounded education that Sam receives and I worry about his younger brother, as he embarks on the next stage, rushing from lesson to lesson, with a minimum of breaks in between. And it’s not just a secondary issue. Since coming back to work as a teacher, I have yet to find a primary school that still has afternoon play, where lunch isn’t a shade under an hour (not enough time to dash out and get yourself a sandwich because you’d run out of bread. if you ask me), where the morning is extended, rumbling tummies notwithstanding, because ‘children are more productive’ then.
In our rush for standards, our anxious desire to keep our places on the league table, to satisfy the demands of the Minister and his teams of inspectors we seem to have lost the plot. There’s no time to get the paints out and put newspaper on the tables. There’s no time for a pee. No time to eat your lunch in a bit of peace and quiet, tell a few jokes and read the educational newspapers in the staffroom. There’s not enough time to play.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NXhddUqNNjo 5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do. A sideways relevance.