Another brick in the wall

Today we sent a letter to our local education authority, we have made a request for yet another of our children to be assessed for support for special education needs - that's 3 out of four of our children who learn differently, who need support to help them access education and achieve their potential.  Realistically though it should only be one of my children who needs this extra help - Daisy is the one in special school with a learning disability, visual impairment and highly complex medical needs which limit the time she can spend in school.  It's completely logical that she should have a statement and funding assigned to her to help her reach her potential.  But my boys, differently wired, with their own unique learning styles, they have high IQ's, they are eager to learn, they just learn differently - the way they do things, their idea of success and achievement, it's totally out of kilter with our modern day, sausage machine education system.

I look back on my wonderful education and I wonder where things have gone so wrong.  I went to a brilliant primary school, where our teachers had freedom to  choose what books we would study and linked the topics to all areas of the curriculum, we even had a school trip to the Cotswolds to visit all the places mentioned in Cynthia Harnett's Book, "The Wool Pack".  We never did any homework and the only tests we had were our weekly spelling and times table tests which we prepared for in class.  Our teachers were like parents, full of stories about life, I am still in touch with a couple of them.  Moving onto High School there were no tests to decide which set I should be in, they were happy with taking advice from my primary school.  I was in the top set and always planned to go to university, studying and school made me happy, I was cut out for a life of colour-coded revision timetables, homework and essays, just as my own daughter, Xanthe, is now.  She has a plan - sixth form college then University, she knows what she wants and she knows how she is going to go about achieving it.

Which is fine because that is how our education system is on the whole geared up, success is measured in academic achievement and progression, we expect our children to do well in school and go on to university.  So if they don't do that, or take longer to get to that point, have they failed?  My husband did not go to university.  His school experience was very different to mine.  One of Andy's school reports refers him spending too much time in the drama studio rehearsing for the school production and not enough time on his studies.  Andy left school just before he was about to sit his A levels, disillusioned with it all. A few years later he gained a scholarship to attend Drama school and before our children arrived had a successful career as a working actor.  He now runs his own very successful Management Development Company.  Very few qualifications, no degree but does this make him less intelligent or successful than me?  Anyone who knows Andy will confirm he has razor sharp intelligence and knowledge, it's just our traditional route to perceived success was not the right one for him.

I have been musing all of this for a while - Theo has an IQ of 159 but after a term and a half in Sixth Form decided that it just was not for him.  He has a gift for technology, he builds computers, integrates systems, optimises things, makes things work, I haven't got a clue how he does it but I do know that his skills were certainly not gained as a result of studying for a GCSE in ICT or a term and a half spent studying the A Level equivalent.  As he said to me, he did not want to sit in a classroom talking about technology while the world was moving fast outside.  I was always convinced that Theo would follow a very academic path, going on to University and studying something scientific.  Instead he's been accepted onto an apprenticeship programme, working in IT support for four days a week and one day a week studying for a Higher Level qualification.  He is in his element, the stressed, anxious, highly strung boy has been replaced by a mature, calmer, young man.  Was I wrong to push him on the linear path of education and lay such high expectations on him?  After all in my world he has failed, he is a drop out.  But my son is excelling at what he does best and even better, as he has pointed out to me, when his friends leave University with upwards of £30,000 in debt he will be well on the way to saving a deposit for his first home, and while his friends will have degrees but no job, Theo will have a head start on them with a few years of work experience under his belt.

Our current education system has evolved to support the needs of a very different model of society than the one we are living in today.  The model we have in place of teaching by year groups and grouping by ability, choosing a path of higher education or manual work has evolved from the Industrial Revolution.  If you are familiar with the work of Sir Ken Robinson you will have heard this.  He maintains that we are still trapped in a paradigm of education equating to intelligence and success, but as he says we need to reconstitute our sense of ability and intelligence, our information society depends on a diversity of talent.  My son was right when he told me that an IT degree is no good to him, the world of technology is moving so quickly that he will benefit more from learning on the job.

 Does our current education system, which I constantly liken to a sausage machine allow for this?  Does it allow our children to flourish and find their path? To develop skills for life and to support diversity?  I don't believe it does,  I believe that it forces our children down a path that is linear, not organic and when they do not succeed on that path they are branded failures.

I have four children, each of them has different learning styles, ambitions, skills and abilities.  Potentially only one of them may follow the traditional route to university.  Does that mean my other three are failures?  Already because my youngest child is in special school she is seen as separate, but in her own way she still has a contribution to make.  Similarly my boys, with totally different learning styles need to be taught in a way that brings their talents and skills to the surface.  Sadly however sitting in a classroom for hours, termly testing and a set path to success or failure is not going to help them achieve this.

As my children have grown up I have constantly had to adjust and test my views and beliefs - going to University straight after school does not have to be the norm, taking vocational qualifications over professional ones does not imply decreased intelligence - I understand that our society has changed from the one our current education model has been built to support, so why is our children's education not changing to support the world we live in?  Why is the sole focus of school to push children to college?  Why do we see the need to test children form the earliest age?  Why are children, who are exposed to so much information and external stimuli in their day to day lives, forced to sit still in a classroom for extended periods and be subjected to tests and exams.  Teachers learn in college that children all learn differently but our system does not allow them to teach our children in a way that suits their learning styles, so those who do need to walk around the class to absorb information, or listen to music in order to concentrate or who can only focus for small bursts of time or who need longer to absorb information, they are branded trouble makers, non-conformists or diagnosed with a disorder of some form.  There has to be some truth in Ken Robinson's premise that maybe we would not have such huge numbers of children being diagnosed with ADHD if we just allowed our children to learn in the way they need to learn.

I love the analogy Robinson uses of how we need to think of how we educate our children in terms of Human Ecology, by forcing our children along a linear path, through a production line model we have mined their minds and stripped our society of resources that we perceive we need for our society, instead we need to get back to an agricultural model where we allow systems to evolve and develop and young minds to flourish.  I hear Mr Gove, The Education Secretary groaning at this point, yes perhaps it is just too out of the box but there is so much truth that human communities depend upon a diversity of talent and not a singular conception of ability.  Our teachers are tired, our children are tired, we parents are tired - things have to change.

As a parent of boys who are differently wired I know this more than most - taking Theo out of a classroom full of noisy boys, bright lights and annoying voices where he felt trapped and cornered and putting him in an environment where he feels in control and valued and most importantly where he is doing the thing he loves has been the making of him.  And this is why we have taken the step to apply for a statement for his younger brother, Jules.  It is obvious that he is also has a different approach to learning, he's bright but he needs to access the curriculum in his own way and our traditional educational system is just not geared for this unless he has a label of some sort.  Jules has inherited the acting talent, he also wishes he was spending his time in the theatre than sitting in a boring classroom, so we need to help him get to that point, without him feeling that he has failed in any way by not following the prescribed path.

We all have hopes and dreams for our children, we have ambitions, we want them to succeed, but maybe as parents we have to step back and really look at what success really looks like.  Success does not necessarily mean going to university straight after school, it may mean going many years later.  Success does not mean being the grade A student for all children, perhaps it's more about finding happiness in something that motivates you.

Success is relative to the individual so maybe we need to shift to a model where actually there are very few statements of special education needs, these are reserved only for children like Daisy, but the rest of the children all have their own Individual Learning Plan and confidence in their own abilities and route to success.  Sadly I can't see this happening, there are too many fingers in the education pie at the moment, without a radical change in how we think about how we educate our children and young people then we are stuck with the sausage machine and parents like me ensuring that our children's self esteem does not take a knock when the system tells them they are failures.


  1. Charlotte9:57 am

    Brilliant post, and something that I think about a huge amount.

    I'm pretty sure that if I had been born 10 years later, I would have been diagnosed with Aspergers as a child. I was an incredibly intense young thing - and a bit of a pain - who excelled in Maths and Sciences but didn't see why I couldn't just learn at my own pace. I was much happier sitting in a corner reading up on genetics than being forced into artificially social situations.

    I don't have an ASD, and I was lucky enough to attend a school that allowed me to evolve and learn in my own way, but I know that this is rare. I'm now a postgrad student and in my element - but was frustrated throughout my education and my initial degree. Now things are better than ever - I can study what fascinates me rather than what's on the curriculum.

    I'm from France and we have a very strong vocational system here. It seems to be accepted that we are all different and that academia is only one path of many that we can follow. It's far from perfect, but I do think that the respect for all different pathways is a good thing.

    Sorry, waffled on there!

  2. stephnimmo7:33 pm

    Thanks so much for your comments - it's so good when the school setting works well for the child's needs but as you say it's rare. Interesting what you say about France, it's my perception that things are similar in Germany & Finland too, it seems to the in the UK and the US that we have lost the plot

  3. Merlinda Little9:05 am

    Interesting! I am a mother of a young boy and I have this fear of him not excelling in school be cause he is different. The picture in your post says it all. How can different people do same things? They will not reach their full potential if they are gauge the same way as the others. I have read about Multiple Disciple Education System while I am in my country. I havent really delve deper into it but this is the system that will highly work as everyone is gauge differently and will be given the education that they required. I will probably look deeper into that now after reading your post. Thanks for sharing this. An excellent writing.

  4. stephnimmo9:12 am

    I think that's the most important thing, to understand how your child learns and then to be there to support and encourage them and if necessary advocate for them - we are not going to change a whole education system but by being aware of our own child's needs we can improve their experience (while lobbying for change overall!)