“I hate school, all we do is play all day.”
I know you are expecting me to follow this statement with the words: said no child ever, but this is a direct quote from my youngest during last term. As an English parent I have several issues with this statement. One is that my 5 year old hates school. (Surely everything should be new and exciting and he should be too young for him to have developed such a strong feeling about school?). Second, what the hell does he mean he’s playing all day?????
When we moved to Switzerland the children were duly enrolled at an International School. We are in the supposedly enviable position of the company Steve works for taking on the cost for this education (although, I hasten to add, we are stung massively in tax as it is considered a benefit). I say ‘supposedly enviable position’ because in actual fact the alternative would be to send the kids to a German speaking local school which would crush the little confidence that our eldest possesses and so we are in not much of a position at all. The International School follows the International Baccalaureate from the Early Years, all the way through to High School and has been a fascinating change to the UK system.
Now, let me just make it clear, I am not a teacher or an academic expert. My experience of school is based on my own (in varying measure good, indifferent and bloody horrible) and more recently, as that of a parent. I repeat, I am no expert.
In the UK the education system is all about the quantifiable academics. Learning to read, write and count at 4 (if not before) learning number facts, multiplication, starting with punctuation and spellings at 5. There are very clear milestones that need to be reached by certain ages and everything is very tangible with home learning supporting the education that is given during school hours. The school day has structure with the kids knowing that they will spend x amount of time doing a given subject. And whilst the days of sitting at a desk and not moving all day have gone, the children are still expected to do what the teacher tells them without answering back, to show respect, and not deviate from the days schedule because targets have to be reached. Every change of government brings fresh changes to the national curriculum. A lot of people have issues with the primary years in particular saying that children should be allowed to be children for longer to enhance their creativity and natural inquisitiveness; that the UK system is too academic and forces children to learn facts rather than gain understanding or develop useful independent learning skills. That home learning is unnecessary, causes tiredness and crushes external life experience as there is less time for the child to play and have social interaction beyond the school curriculum. More and more parents, and indeed experts, believe that at primary level, child led learning through play is the way forward. But what does this actually mean?
The school that our children now attend adopts this very philosophy, that every child has the right to learn at their own pace and should enjoy as much play based learning as possible. This will allow the child to express their creativity, develop a thirst for learning, allow knowledge to be gained by thinking outside of the box. It sounds marvellous doesn’t it? Surely some kind of academic utopia, right? I have to admit that when you read about it, when you see all the research that goes into putting together the school’s curriculum, when you attend the talks about the methods of teaching that are adopted and the philosophy of teaching concepts not content (allowing a more organic approach to learning) it all sounds wonderful. To be honest I am totally on board with this philosophy and can see the long term benefits of adopting such a system. I also love the fact that the IB is above politics, in the UK every change of cabinet results in tinkering with the curriculum, whilst the IB just seeks out the best possible concepts to give children the best damn possible education.
However when you start drilling into the details you realise that the teachers have to be bloody amazing for all of this to work. They have to observe and continually assess their pupils to ensure that they are providing them with the correct stimulation to progress their learning and allow their charges to be continually challenged and thereby excited by school to create the desire to seek new knowledge. Each class may contain children (up to 20 in total) that are at totally different ends of the spectrum in every subject area and then they have to create learning opportunities to allow the expected outcomes for the age group to be reached (yes, the teachers and pupils still have targets to reach even if there aren’t any official examinations). With International School there is also the added issue of language, where not all of the children have English as the mother tongue. Which must cause distraction for not only the pupils but also for the staff until the children concerned are at a level good enough to understand instruction and basic conversation.
Another thing to throw into the mix, and probably where my main issue with the system comes from, is that at International School we have found that the year groups are mis-aligned when compared to the UK schooling. My daughter who would have been in Year 2 in England is currently in Grade 1, my son is in Kindergarten instead of Year 1. So mentally they have not progressed beyond the years that they have already done. The sad, and concerning, thing for my husband and I has been that the academic learning they are doing now, they have already done. They are repeating last year and are therefore not being stimulated by new knowledge. Some would suggest that this is not a problem, that they are learning so much more by broadening their experience of the world, exposing them to other cultures and languages, and giving them the opportunity to cement the learnings they have already done through the repetition. Which in many ways is correct, however, this has resulted in both of my children being bored by school. Both children were a year ahead of their current peers in key areas like reading, writing and numeracy but the knowledge that they had already gained in the UK system (rightly or wrongly) has been forgotten through lack of practise and limited support. They are not being challenged academically which has resulted in limited progress. Let me give a few examples. My daughter, just turned 7, is a fabulous reader and her writing was developing in the same way whilst in the UK. Her letter formation was clear and defined and she was starting to join up to create a juvenile handwriting, her spelling (sounding out) was coming along well, and her vocabulary was broadening. Having been at the International School for six months now we have see her letter formation, spelling and vocabulary deteriorate. Her maths knowledge beyond basic addition and subtraction has been forgotten (she had a grasp of simple multiplication when we left the UK). My son, age 5, has managed to hold onto his reading skills (possibly because we read lots at home) but again his writing has deteriorated and his maths doesn’t extend beyond basic counting. I believe that the school has an obligation to provide the support and challenge to build on skills and knowledge that children already have from other countries and academic systems which it currently does not appear to be fulfilling.
When we queried the backward motion of our children’s knowledge a handful of points were raised. First was that the children needed time to adjust and adapt to the different methods of teaching. Second was that the school wanted to do things their way and set out their own stall, have their own identity, not try and adopt methods from one particular country. Third (which to me felt like a get out of jail free card) was that academic knowledge tended to level out by the age of 8 anyway, so, and in not so many words, don’t worry about it. My problem is that I do worry about it. They are my children. In this ever changing and increasingly competitive global community I want them to be stimulated, happy and safe at school whilst gaining a good grounding in all knowledge areas which will give them the thirst for future achievement. This is not to say that the school they attend is not a good school. It is. Its examination results higher up the school are impressive and perhaps this is where my point is. If we were going to be settled in Switzerland for 10 years, or be expats in other countries and other International Schools, I wouldn’t be as worried about this as I currently am. The school, and the IB is clearly a system that works over time (as I said the results higher up the school are excellent) so my major problem is that International Schools have a high percentage of pupils that move countries and schools within short time frames and, for people like us who will not be long term expats, I know that our children will return to the UK in a year or two and where they were flying before we left they will sadly be lagging behind on our return.