Top of the Tree

I am regularly infected with what seem like Good Ideas at the Time.  Swimming lessons are a perfect example.  When Sam was a baby I got carried away by all the hype and took him to baby classes, where he proceeded to catch every bug going and regularly puke in the pool, much to everyone’s eternal delight, I’m sure.  Later, after I realised that it maybe wasn’t such a good idea, I transferred my enthusiasm to pre-school lessons at the local pool.  Swimming is great exercise, especially for those possessors of low muscle tone, and, living as I do in a town that is dominated by its situation at the confluence of two major English rivers, it forms an important part of life; to not sign your kids up and reserve them a place almost as soon as they are toddling is almost out of the question here.

The thing is, though, that mine never really took to them, not in the early days, anyway.  Sam was so little that his feet didn’t touch the bottom of the learner pool.  He was never warm enough, and I failed to take into consideration how distracting the pool environment is to a little boy with sensory issues.  All those Nemos on the ceiling, you know, the ones children look at when they are learning to swim on their backs, the echoes, the perennially shouty style of swimming teachers.  It wasn’t long before he wasn’t paying attention.

And A.  He wasn’t much better.  I have to admit, I signed him up with the sort of smug self-satisfaction that exudes from the parent of a child who has found everything easy so far.  He crawled at six months, was toddling at eleven. Physically forward, especially compared to his older brother, I had no doubt in my mind that swimming would be the same.  How wrong could I be?  It took me a little while to realise that the strange mooing noise of distress was coming from my child.

Swimming lessons are funny things.  Unlike school ones, that happen behind the mysterious doors of the classroom, far from the prying eyes of parents, swimming ones happen in full view of everyone.  Every week for a year I took them, and sat, slowly melting, waiting for their half hour in the water to end before wrestling sticky-wet boys back into their clothes for the journey home.  Every week for a year I chatted to friends and kept half an eye on what was going on in the pool.  Sometimes I kept both eyes glued; fascinated, disquieted.

It’s always interesting watching someone else teach your child.  For a start, there is the ‘I wouldn’t do it like that’ factor.  It’s so easy, when you are on the outside looking in, and when you have a good bank of years teaching primary aged children behind you, to see the little one daydreaming in the corner or the way that the initial explanation was glossed over.  It’s easy for you, who has not got the responsibility for a large group of children in your hands, to see how certain behaviours can be misinterpreted.

For me, it was a plain as the nose on my face that A’s bouncing around, his chatter and the constant looking the other way came from nervous anxiety, not a lack of discipline. The shock of that first lesson, which I blithely supposed my three year old would take in his stride, took a long time to subside.  After a year, when his progress towards swimming had gone in the backwards direction, we called it a day.  And Sam.  Why was I paying for someone else to call him naughty, to do him down?

You see, I think we automatically assume that our children won’t be the ones caught looking out of the window when they ought to be looking at the teacher.  It’s never our children sent quaking in their shoes to the head teacher’s office to answer for their childish crimes.  If we thought it was, if we knew that it was our baby’s name on the black cloud, missing precious minutes off their golden time each week, or enduring an undiluted diet of phonics and maths via intervention after intervention we might feel differently about the system.

Or progress.  The national curriculum levels are no more and we are currently mid-consultation about their replacement.  In an educational age of measures, how do we prove that children are getting better at doing the things we are teaching them?  Against which scale are we to measure them now?  Our Great Leaders seem to favour some sort of system whereby we compare the children to a national standard.  Which is fine if yours is the one achieving ‘mastery level’.

But what if they aren’t?  What if your child is told, year after year, that they aren’t an Acceptable National Standard Child?  What if, year after year, you open a report that, rather than celebrating what they can do, instead, tells you, yet again, that they are Below Expectations?  How does it feel then?  When, instead of being top of the tree it turns out that they are the bottom of the heap?

Because in a system of mastery and national standard children, where we rather unimaginatively give our children, as well as our schools, a mark out of four, only one of which is acceptable, the vast majority of them will be there, at the bottom, marked as failures, or defective, from their earliest years.

And you don’t have to have a child with Down syndrome for that to happen.

The swimming?

Well, for a short time I decided to teach them myself.  I bought a book and everything.  For a short time they valiantly, and successfully resisted my efforts.  In a very short time I gave up my attempts to teach and played with them; I stopped trying to force them before they were developmentally ready.

They are all good swimmers now.

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7 thoughts on “Top of the Tree

  1. This is a totally brilliant blog, Nancy. Every single word you’ve written here rings true to me and I despair at the fact that our political leaders cannot see it. Thank you so much for putting what I feel into words. 🙂

  2. It’s such a shame that a right-minded move away from attainment levels in their current form is going to be so easily misused, as you illustrate, Nancy. The labelling and categorising of the kids is the problem – there will always be some doing better and some doing worse than others. For all kids to improve, it’ll need everyone to get behind a clear appreciation of what kids need to know at different stages. Parents evenings needn’t be the telling of whether a kid is a master or is ‘suboptimal’: it could be the chance to clearly outline a well-articulated awareness of what the kid needs to do to improve. Levels don’t communicate this.
    PS When I learnt to swim, I was like a flailing little Magikarp.

    1. Totally agree. As a parent I want to know what they know – and where they are going next.

      And as a swimmer I wore armbands and shivered in the cold outdoor pool at my primary school 😉

  3. Much of this post resonated with me! I went to visit a lessons pool that was supposed to be good for special needs, but it is in such a small space I was having sensory overload just sitting in there–not sure how any of the kids do it.
    I also have a typical son with anxiety and he spent a lot of lessons clinging to the side. He didn’t master it until we went daily to a pool outside with a zero-depth entrance. That made all the difference.
    I admire your dedication–once a week for a year! And then teaching them yourself. Way to go, Mom!

  4. My eldest pretty much took everything in his stride – which may be why he moved 130 miles away at 20 to start a new job. Sorted out his own flat & everything.

    Youngest also took everything in his stride, as long as you look at his strides through his eyes! He knew he had to get in the pool, so he stood for the whole session with his ankles in the water, that’s as far down the ladder he went. He learned to swim just fine, but refused point-blank to swim during gradings. He always stopped just short of the 10m line. Left to his own devices (and not during lessons), 200m was not out of the question. Just not during gradings. In the end, he didn’t bother doing his 10m, he carried on past 25m, past 50m and clocked up 250m before deciding to stop – even though his teacher was asking him to. He also had a stinking cold want swam one-handed/armed when he needed to cough because, of course, you needed the other to cover your mouth…. Showed those other parents who’d tutted away he did -showed them that actually, he could swim far further than their kids!

    That’s the story of my youngest and the story of his autism. An incredibly able young man, provided you watch what he does when he thinks he’s not being watched, or publicly tested. It is why his primary school had him down for the bottom sets, despite the EP’s report to the contrary. You see, the EP came to our home when he was 3 & happily striding away. She saw twice exceptional.

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