How else do you explain two announcements this week? The first, by Michael Wilshaw, boss of OFSTED, the English schools inspections agency, was that they were about to get tough with nursery schools and child-minders. What was previously ‘satisfactory’ will now be deemed ‘requires improvement’. Wilshaw further complained that kids were leaving nursery ill-equipped for statutory schooling.
A friend of mine collected her daughter from nursery this week. Concerned that her child seemed unhappy, she asked the staff if she was OK. ‘Absolutely’, came the reply, ‘she hit all her literacy targets today!’ Her child is three years old. Thomas Gradgrind is alive and living amongst us.
Elizabeth Truss, the UK ‘s Education and Childcare minister made the government position on nurseries clear when she said: “I want to see more teacher-led nursery classes where children are learning so that they arrive at school ready to progress”
The government announcement prompts two questions:
- When does formal education begin? Isn’t it in primary/elementary school? If so, why are OFSTED inspecting centres that provide informal education?
- If they consider the inspection of nurseries and childminders their right, why isn’t such ‘schooling’ a universal entitlement for parents?
While education progressives were condemned as the ‘enemies of promise’, public response to the announcement seems to cast Government as the ‘enemies of play’ This is a typical comment:
“When did kids start learning before they started infant school at 4-5? I’m all for learning through play, but there are times when they poor kids don’t really play. As they all develop at different rates, trying to force them into learning before they are ready is wrong, all it does is leave them with a dislike of it.”
So, that was quite depressing. Then our spirits were further lowered when Michael Gove announced that he wanted to see longer school days and shorter school holidays. His rationale for this seemed to be that his much-admired Asian education systems did this, with better student outcomes as a result:
“School days are longer, school holidays are shorter. The expectation is that to succeed, hard work is at the heart of everything.”
Well, once again, Mr Gove finds himself swimming in the wrong direction. Singapore’s Education Minister Heng Swee Keat has frequently implored Singaporean parents to give their kids more time to play, relax, and just be kids. Because part of the reason why Singapore kids do better than English kids at tests is because most of them are forced to endure private tutoring every night after school. Unlike Mr Gove, I’ve worked with these kids, and seen the sheer exhaustion in their eyes, and their shoulders slumped by the weight of expectation upon them. If they don’t get into a top university they are deemed a failure.
The Singapore government is not merely concerned about the humanitarian impact of 12 hour learning days. It also fears such attitudes don’t develop the skills vital to succeed in the 21st century. While ‘hard work’ may get these kids a place at university, it’s likely to leave them bereft of the creativity, independent learning skills, and communication skills that comes with a rather more liberal approach to child development.
South Korea’s former Education Minister also deplores this relentless drilling-and-killing:
“While Korea’s students excel at learning, they believe its purpose lies not in self-development based on personal interest or motivation, but in entrance into a highly ranked university. Students have no time to ponder the fundamental question of “What do I need to learn, and why?” They simply need to prepare for the test by learning the most-effective methods for digesting tremendous quantities of material and committing more to memory than others do”.
Yet none of the expressed concerns from the countries he so admires cuts much ice with Mr Gove. He seems to consider childhood as merely a tiresome preparation for ‘real’ life, as an adult, rather than something that should be full of joy, play, and discovery.
Introducing the idea, Gove at least didn’t try to pretend that such a move was child-friendly. But he did assert that it was ‘family-friendly’ – a claim which drew this response from one blogger:
“As a working mother, I structure my working hours around my daughter’s schooling and holiday times – and I’m glad to do it. My daughter is not an inconvenience whose care gets in the way of those longer working hours I’d like to be doing – I love her and I love spending time with her….I have never looked at my daughter and thought, “I wish she would work harder. Why can’t she be more like those children in Hong Kong and Singapore and East Asia? Why doesn’t she have to work more, learn more, why can’t we put more pressure on her to achieve and succeed?”
I believe Michael Gove has misjudged the parents of kids currently at school, and I hope they’ll resist this urging of nurseries and schools to ‘do more, work harder’. What we really need to do is get our schools and our kids to work smarter, not harder/longer. That, unfortunately, seems beyond the capability of the current imagination-snatchers.