Dear Nicky Morgan, about those listening ears …

Dear Nicky

I sent my children to school today, as did most parents.  Some did not.  Over 45,000 parents signed the petition supporting the Let Our Kids Be Kids strike and boycotting of this year’s SATs, parents who feel so strongly that the new curriculum is damaging their children that they felt they needed to make a stand.

The fact that many more thousands of parents sent their children to school today does not mean that they are on your side – for this feels like lines are being drawn.

I sent my children to school for several reasons (apart from the very practical reason of being at work).

My eldest child is in Year 5.  The boy more or less invented Civil Disobedience.  At the moment this is reserved for broccoli, washing and his brother choosing what’s on the TV.  I am not about to give him the idea that boycotting school is an option if he can come up with a good enough argument.  This is because I care about him, about his education, and about moulding him into a responsible, intelligent citizen,.  At the moment, he couldn’t care less about much – telling him that school is anything other than non-negotiable is insane.

My youngest child is in Year 2.  He cares deeply about everything.  He’s a bright boy, conscientious and hates to be in trouble.  Keeping him off school today would have make him incredibly anxious that his headmaster or teacher would be cross or disappointed in him. I don’t think, at 7, he can understand the nuance of disagreeing with Government policy rather than the teachers.

So off to school they went.

In one corner, Government supporters will say that standards must be improved and our children deserve better.  Parents, teachers and mental health experts will point to increases in anxiety and the damaging effects this is having on our children.

I don’t think you understand anxiety (it’s a noun although I’m not sure what sort); I don’t think politicians, by their very nature, can. Politicians, must develop a thick skin, be decisive, be unswayed by opposition. These are not the traits of an anxious person. I don’t think you understand what it does to people, and children in particular. It is not fussy about intelligence or ability, it is not about strength or weakness. It’s about fear and with that fear comes a reluctance to try. Doing nothing is better than doing the wrong thing.

Increasingly I see joy being replaced by worry.  A recent piece of homework asked him to memorise a poem to recite in class.  We eventually chose one, after rejecting some of the more unsuitable junior school ditties his brother had taught him. Although he has the memory of a supercomputer and had given a nativity performance to rival Mark Rylance, there were tears of genuine fear that he would make a mistake, or forget a line.  We had to very gently explain that the point of it was to encourage a love of poetry, to discover new things, not a memory test.

I see him reluctant to write stories like he once did.  I see him hesitate before using a difficult word in case he has spelt it incorrectly. I see the look of crumpled dejection when, although he’s on the top table, he’s still hasn’t got a tick in the top box.

He makes up the most amazing pun laden jokes, he has arbitrarily taken it upon himself to memorise capital cities at bedtime, he has mastered the armpit fart.

I spent a long time drilling my 10 year old that having messy handwriting did not mean that he couldn’t be great at writing (Goddammit).  Spotting the modal verbs in Jane Eyre (no, me neither) doesn’t mean you are any more capable of understanding what those words mean.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m something of a grammar pedant.  Whilst I’ll accept (and even commit) the odd slip, on the whole apostrophes are non negotiable and I know what to do with a semi-colon.  We have an amazing language which deserves to be treated with respect and its rules adhered to.  I also accept that a sound knowledge of grammar might make us a little better at languages.  In which case, ditch the SPAG and make French compulsory.

The Government spokespeople (whose own grammar isn’t that hot), obviously haven’t faired too badly.  Julia Hartley-Brewer defended them on PM today saying she had been ‘failed by the comprehensive system as she was never taught this stuff’  So much so that she is now a successful columnist, commentator, and regular on Radio4 and Question Time – the utter drop out.  She talked of woolly liberals who never want their children to fail, or get less than an A, and never want them to challenged.

It’s actually the complete opposite.

I want my children to be armed and dangerous with all of the myriad of skills they will need in adult life – skills that will make them successful and happy.  These are not fronted adverbials or subordinate clauses.

The Government doesn’t have a monopoly on wanting to make Britain great.  The skills that will make it great are not scoring 100% in spelling tests, the world has changed.  They are inventiveness, innovation, analytical skills, looking for answers, creativity, leadership, resilience and confidence in their own abilities and talents.

I and my children’s teachers seem to spend our lives trying to instil feelings of enthusiasm, joy and self-esteem only to have it knocked out of them when we’re not looking.

What we seem to be teaching children is that they are wrong.  The seed is planted that the ideas in their head aren’t nearly as important as getting the answer right.  That memorising facts and definitions is more important than understanding them.

Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

Worse than that, it’s teaching them not to make mistakes.

In the adult world, great leaders and managers don’t constantly criticise the people they lead (OK, some do, but they’re rubbish).  They look for strengths to develop, they encourage, they instil a vision that will inspire and motivate.

I can’t tell you how much I want my children to fail; to fail over and over and then have another go, to try things that they’ve never done before, to try things that they know won’t work but do it anyway. To get things wrong or to get things right but in an unexpected way.

To do something great, or remarkable, or just different … or not.

Instead we are in danger of raising a whole generation of very small animals entirely surrounded by water.  Children who know exactly what is expected of them and by what percentage they are lacking.  Children who always seem to get everything wrong, even when they are mostly right.

Now I know you and your colleagues are working towards expected levels on your listening skills.  Junior Doctors and patients don’t seem to be getting very far and now teachers, parents and experts are telling you about their actual experience of real life children, but you’re still not that bothered.  Apparently you do trust us to make decisions complex economic, agricultural and legal arguments on EU membership which I’m pretty guaranteed I, along with 90% of the rest of population, am not qualified to make.

So fingers on lips, hands on knees, and pay attention.

All too often we skip spellings but rarely story time, so I shall leave you with some hints and tips from Antoine de Saint Exupéry.  It’s a metaphor but I’m sure that will be OK. He’s French and everything.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

Yours sincerely