It’s coming up to the end of the first week of the Easter holidays, and I’m loving it. It’s funny, but as soon as school breaks up I instantly feel that I’m on holiday too, even though arguably I’m busier than I am during the school week. It’s so lovely, though, not starting each day with an increasingly shrill and frantic monologue of “Come on Anna, hurry up sweetheart, we’ll be late. No, don’t play with that/read that/get that out now we need to get dressed/clean teeth/eat breakfast. Put your shoes on, put your coat on, where’s your cardie? Where’s your book bag? Where’s your hat? Where are my keys? Don’t let the cat drink your milk. Finish your toast. No, we haven’t got time for a story. HURRY UP! Come on! No, you can’t take Rosie/Teddy/Chloe to school with you. ANNA, will you just please put your shoes on NOW!” etc etc etc. I hate that most of the time we’re both stressed out before we even leave the house. And that’s just with one child when I work from home. My hat comes off and my heart goes out to parents with multiple children and/or parents who have to get themselves into work as well as children to school on time. Every Sunday evening I vow that this week will be different, I will be calm and organised, serene and efficient…by 8.30am on Monday I’m inevitably screeching again.
It’s the same after school. I go to pick up Anna every day feeling genuinely excited. I miss her hugely when she’s at school, and I’m desperate to see her, hug her, spend some quality time with her (NB, one of my failings is that I can’t say ‘quality time’ without putting on a cheesy fake American accent. Don’t know why.). Of course it rarely works out like that. She is absolutely exhausted by school, and more often than not this takes the form of being something of, not to put too fine a point on it, a whingey, whiney brat. By 4pm I’m counting the hours ’til bedtime, and still have the school reading book gauntlet to run.
Weekends are lovely, of course, but there’s so much to cram in. Anna’s social life. Our social life (definitely a poor second place). Homework. (Yes, I know she’s only 5…). Gardening. Household chores. (We don’t actually do these, by the way, but there’s that niggling sense we perhaps should.). It’s easy for just spending time together hanging out, either at home or in some of our favourite spots around London, to get squeezed. The last few days have been so much fun because they’ve reminded me how much fun Anna is, of how much I enjoy her company. I’ve never for a single moment doubted that I love my daughter to the ends of the earth, but I can occasionally forget how much I like her too.
Before last September the idea of home schooling was completely alien to me. I couldn’t for the life of me see why parents would choose to do that, or how children could possibly benefit. I now think very differently. I’m not planning on home schooling Anna – I’m too impatient, too selfish and too mathematically incompetent, but I now understand exactly why some people make that choice, and how it could be an amazing thing for the whole family. We’re lucky that Anna goes to a fantastic school. Her class teacher is everything I could possibly wish her to be – kind, funny, bright, patient, warm. Anna’s settled in pretty well, and seems to have lots of friends. However…I just can’t shake my conviction that 4.5 was too young to be placed on a conveyer belt which probably won’t end until she is 21 – older if, as is not unlikely, she then goes on to further study or a graduate scheme.
This week we have spotted different kinds of trains at Stratford station, baked Easter nest cakes, planted seeds, weeded the garden, gone shopping, built a Lego model, made finger print fairies and witches, had lunch with friends, created a tent out of sheets, read a LOT of stories, hung up washing on the line, reorganised the craft drawer, held a teddy bears’ picnic, chatted to Grandad on the phone, gone for a picnic tea on Walthamstow Marshes and, yes, watched some TV. This morning we went with some friends of Anna’s to Sun Trap activity centre in Epping Forest where the girls completed a nature trail through the woods. To be honest it was a little bit sketchy on the nature, and they reacted with abject horror to the suggestion of staying silent for 20 seconds to hear different varieties of bird song, but there was lots of jumping in muddy puddles, climbing on logs and wading through streams, followed by a picnic lunch in the sunshine. This afternoon she’s spending a couple of hours with Granny in Central London. On Saturday we’re off to Brugge for a few days, and my husband has been teaching Anna a few words of Flemish in preparation. We have pom-pom bunnies, courtesy of Auntie Esther, to make on the train, the prospect of eating our own body weight in mussels, chips and chocolate in the name of cultural exchange, and then we’re going to round the holidays off with a visit to Nanna and Grandad where, rumour has it, the Easter Bunny may be planning a visit.
It seems to me that this is how someone just turned five should be spending their time, and that this is how they might learn best, rather than cooped up in a classroom. The Foundation Stage curriculum is play based, so the children do have a lot of ‘free’ time, and a fair amount of time outdoors this Reception year. But it is still an inescapably rigid structure. Anna is shattered by the end of the day, on her knees by the end of the week and pretty much catatonic by the end of term, and many of her friends seem to be in a similar state. It’s only seeing her during the holidays that I realise just what a strain she’s under during the week, even though she enjoys school most of the time.
Of course the modern world in this country isn’t set up for formal schooling to begin only at the age of seven or eight. One thing on which all political parties seem to agree is the need to get parents back to work as soon as possible; they just disagree on the details of how this should be achieved – childcare vouchers, free nursery places or whatever else. And some families undoubtedly thrive on this. I just wish there could be a little more flexibility and choice.
For me, the ideal would be for Anna to have continued at Nursery, every weekday morning and one afternoon a week, following a play based curriculum, until the age of six or seven. She would have the benefits of socialising with her peers and a little bit of structured learning in the morning, but one-on-one time and freedom to follow her own interests in the afternoon. I would have mornings to pursue my own career and interests, and afternoons to enjoy my lovely girl.
What do you think? Does school start too early? Is homeschooling the best option? Should parents be given more freedom to choose what works for their child? Or is the structure we have actually a reasonable one which works for the majority of people?