Just over a month ago it was time for my oldest daughter to start ‘big school’, as she calls it. Unlike some mums who dread to face the fact that their ‘babies’ are growing up, I must admit that I was quite looking forward to it. Despite my daughter being young in her year, I thought she was ready for it. And so was I! Ready to spend the remainder of my maternity leave actually on my ‘has-to-fit-in’ baby girl, rather than trying to entertain number one all the time.
What a shock I was in for. No, it’s not my daughter who’s struggling. I am. And not with some sort of semi empty-nest-syndrome, no, with the system. I was aware that the UK education system is different from what I grew up with back in the Netherlands. What I hadn’t seen coming at all is how much I’m struggling with it.
The big difference in a nutshell? The age when children start learning. Children are six years old when they start their formal learning journey in the Netherlands, a whole two years later than here. And with formality comes the inevitable discipline (in what other way are you going to keep 25-30 children in check?). Now I’m not against some forms of discipline, but I wonder if four-year-olds are ready to be told ‘don’t do this, don’t do that’ and to sit down and be quiet. Plus I have discovered the flip-side of school discipline – rebelliousness. My goody two-shoes rule-abiding daughter has managed in a month’s time to develop let’s say, a bit of an attitude. “You’re not the boss of me mummy”, she told me the other day. And when I reminded her of something she said: “Yes, mum, you’ve told me that like a million times already!” A teenager seems to have emerged at the age of four….
What I struggle with most is the actual learning that children are expected to do. Formal learning makes up 30% of the time in Reception class. In my opinion that’s 30% too much. Every day without fail children in Reception class have a 20 minute phonics lesson. There are also formal numeracy and writing activities during each (long, full-time) day. “Mummy, today I wrote the ‘f’ in my name wrong’, my daughter tells me with a worried expression on her face. Shouldn’t these early years be the only few precious years of these young people’s lives where they don’t need to worry about anything at all?
Just let me briefly describe the system in the Netherlands. At the age of four, most children (voluntarily) go to Kindergarten which is linked to a primary school. It’s state-funded and comparable to Preschool here in its informality. All that children are expected to be able to do after the first year is count to five. Their second year, when they’re five, is compulsory but still completely play-based. Before they make the transition to formal learning at age six, they’re expected to be able to know are the colours, the days of the week and to be able to count to ten. It’s not until the third year, at age six, when formal literacy and numeracy enters the curriculum. Throughout their years at primary school, children are off every Wednesday and Friday afternoon. These are times for children to enjoy sports or other hobbies, or to just be children – to do nothing much in particular.
Before you tell me to just bugger off back to my own country, it is Finland apparently where we have to be for the best education in the world. Finland has one of the highest global test scores in the Western world and is the most literate nation in the world. And get this, formal learning doesn’t start there until the age of seven! Their successful system has been based on numerous pieces of international research, which has shown over and over again that seven is the age that the majority of children are developmentally ready to learn and focus. Hours in Finnish schools are shorter (from 09:00-14:00 each day), breaks are longer and more frequent (every hour there is a mandatory 15 minute outdoor play break which has shown to be beneficial for children to digest what they’ve just learned), assessment is mainly done through direct classroom observation by teachers, so there’s less testing and less homework which means there’s more effective classroom participation, which in turn means less stress for both teachers and pupils. The Fins’ educational mantra is ‘Let children be children, they learn best through play’.
Now I’m not inclined to move to Finland tomorrow (don’t they live in semi-darkness for about six months of the year?), but I do wonder why educational experts in this country don’t seem to have taken this research and the success stories out there into account. I have yet to find satisfactory answers to why the system is such in the UK. So far all I’ve managed to find is an answer to why children here go to school for such long hours each day. One reason is apparently to get parents back into the workforce. This is a good enough reason, although I can’t help but wonder why it should have to be this way? If part-time jobs were more accepted across the board, including in high-earning professional positions, parents would be able to more easily combine parental responsibilities with a career.
Whilst my daughter comes home dog-tired and ravishing every single day, singing her new alphabet songs, I can’t help but quietly sing School by Supertramp when she’s not listening….
I can see you in the morning when you go to school
Don’t forget your books, you know you’ve got to learn the golden rule,
Teacher tells you stop your play and get on with your work
And be like Johnnie-too-good, well don’t you know he never shirks
He’s coming along..
After school is over you’re playing in the park
Don’t be out too late, don’t let it get too dark
They tell you not to hang around and learn what life’s about
And grow up just like them, won’t you let it work it out
And you’re full of doubt
Don’t do this and don’t do that
What are they trying to do?
Make a good boy of you
Do they know where it’s at?
Don’t criticize, they’re old and wise
Do as they tell you to
Don’t want the devil to
Come out and put your eyes
Maybe I’m mistaken expecting you to fight
Or maybe I’m just crazy, I don’t know wrong from right
But while I am still living, I’ve just got this to say
It’s always up to you if you want to be that
Want to see that
Want to see that way
You’re coming along
For more information on education in Finland:
For some good music: