Government policy and guidelines (and their implementation) equal to ‘state sponsored child abuse’?

Less than a year ago I read Sue Palmer’s comments on government guidelines to encourage boys to read and thought that the phrase she had used ‘state-sponsored child abuse’ – was over the top. I don’t think that now. Events in our lives this week have made it very clear to me that what starts life as an educational tool can very easily be misused as an institutional baseball bat to punish children and their parents for not conforming to a fantasy-world “standard”  invented by the Department of Education. This is a long post. If you care about these issues please read it to the end.

Writing this blog week-in, week-out over the past two years has often been a challenge. I’ve had my share of insults. Around a year ago on a mainstream internet chat forum someone even described me as ‘deranged’ . Yes, they really did. The message I was trying to put across was often distorted by a prevailing reductionist paradigm which went like this: “you disagree with current government policy on reading and writing and how it is being implemented – therefore you are holding your own child back – and holding all children back”. There was a slightly different but equally misguided interpretation of what I was doing too: “you want everyone to agree with you, why are you writing about this at all – it is a personal matter between you and your family”.

This blog is about freedom in education and the dialogue around it takes place in that space where the personal and the political collide.

 I kept on writing the blog. Partly survival instinct, partly bolshieness and partly because I could see that no-one else seemed to be documenting a parent and a child’s experience on the ground like this. I believed it was so important to have an authentic voice out there. As I carried on writing I learned that other parents had very similar experiences to ours – but many if not most – were not in a position to write about them and publish them.

And then there was the endless love I have for my daughter. The belief that one of the most important things I could do for her was to ensure she had space to be and space to learn. To learn at her own pace. She is now five years and five months old. Like many parents – at various points in her development in the past we have received well-meaning advice. People sometimes suggested for example, (when she was two and wasn’t walking yet) – that ‘maybe we should go and see someone about it’. We didn’t. I knew from observing my child very closely that at the age of two what she was doing was spending a lot of time sitting and watching (and learning). I trusted that when she was ready to walk, (and talk) she would. And she did.

Part of that love which informs judgement led me to use my skills to change government policy and public opinion. Some may call it arrogance I suppose, but my understanding of motherhood is not simply one which involves keeping my child safe and happy in the home or outdoors. My love is about keeping my child (and children) safe in the world. And that means nothing less than changing it for the better.

On Friday last before half term I was riding high on the possibility that such a thing might be doable. The international petition I launched to Stop League Tables for Five Year Olds had been a success. The movement was getting bigger – we had managed to change the government’s plans. Myself and my daughter had featured in the press nearly every week for the past month. I had started to think that the message was getting through. I was caught off guard. I’d forgotten how much work and awareness-raising really still needs to be done on this. I was in for a savage wake-up call.

There was a phone call from my daughter’s school with a request of a five minute meeting after school on the Friday: ‘nothing urgent’ I was told. In the ‘nothing urgent’ category I imagined some conversation about lunch money or not having labelled her uniform properly.

When I get there and pick Babes up from school a senior member of staff (who I had hardly spoken to before and who knows nothing about our family circumstances) makes me wait to see her – and then hits with the hard stuff.

It dawns on me: what is happening is not misguided abstract government policy. This is my own child being inappropriately targeted by government literacy ‘support’.

 The person in question says she knows I have ‘fixed views’ on literacy but she wants to ‘offer’ my child local authority literacy ‘support’ (i.e. a special remedial class). She appears confident in her attempt to hold what seems to be a completely patronising lecture on why she thinks this might be a good idea. I’m feeling a mixture of utter disbelief and horror.

 She seems surprised when I interrupt the planned lecture by holding up my hand in a Stop Sign and say very clearly, carefully and slowly:

“Stop-right-there. Do-not-even-go-there.”

I’m aware that my child is sitting at the table next door to us – there is no way I am allowing her to stay seated whilst someone – anyone extrapolates on her perceived deficiencies. As far as I’m concerned that really would be the beginning of a terrible stigmatising experience for her. So my next sentence is:

“Come on Babes let’s go”.  I get to my feet and as calmly as possible promise my daughter a pizza and exit the school. There are times when it is important to stay put and negotiate and other times when it is vital to give a very clear signal.

 Readers,readers. You know that my daughter is summer-born. Still five and as such a year younger (and developmentally different) than many other children in her class. Whilst we are not wealthy, in no conceivable universe could our child be described as at a disadvantage as far as the development of her literacy and numeracy skills are concerned. We live in a house with wall-to-wall books. Babes talks constantly from morning until night, with parents, friends and grandparents. She writes and draws her own books at home. Her mum is a writer for goodness sake. She is a child whose prized possession right now is a calculator. She is so fond of and entranced by the numbers and the add and take away functions she has discovered for herself on it that she won’t got to bed unless she is allowed to keep it under her pillow. She has no speech difficulties, no special needs. My Other Half spends more than an hour each day reading long and complex stories aloud to her.  She goes to the library every week.

I phone my other Half outside the school and he says ‘well, at least they told us’.  We are aware of a case of one parent in a primary school who had their child drafted into a literacy class and they weren’t even told about it.

A possible explanation and analysis are offered by the internet community. The pressure of the targets, it is said – create a situation where pressure is created for any child who develops differently from a perceived acceptable norm  – to be shunted off into a special literacy group. So that the teacher can concentrate on the ‘mainstream’ (and fulfil the targets.)

I’ve been told that my child is better suited to a ‘Talented and Gifted’ group than she is to a group at the other end of the spectrum i.e. special needs. She’s a very clever child who is more interested in the meaning of sentences right now than she is in the artificial mechanics of phonics. As the Professor I quoted in my last post – indicated, for children to have these sorts of systems imposed on them equates to ‘forced labour’. I’m sure that is how my daughter would experience such a group. And I’ve looked at a suggested curriculum for such a course.

What really worries me is that if I had not known what I know –  had not been writing this blog and had not been in a position to raise the ‘Stop’ sign – both myself and my daughter would have been feeling stigmatised and as if we had failed. The timing of that meeting reminds me of the stories you hear of people who have been made redundant just before the Christmas holidays, or on Friday afternoon. For the average person if you hear news like that, late in the day just before the holidays – your ability to question, access support or a different opinion (because the school is closed and no other parents are around) is next to non-existent.

How many other parents across the country have caved in, believed what they were told, or felt too afraid to ask the right questions? I think there will be quite a few. Quite a few who don’t read the Times Educational Supplement. Quite a few who have had no chance to hear what experts in the field are saying about literacy and child development.

There is still so much work to do on this. For the proposed Phonics Test is not just a headline but a reality for parents and children. As yet we do not know which schools will be targeted, although we know roughly when the tests will be carried out. Unless we change government policy, the test will be carried out as a Pilot scheme in Year One classes. In YOUR class with YOUR child. Some children are six in these classes and some like my own daughter are still ONLY five.

The situation is Orwellian. With the libraries closing – and experts telling the government and the press that such proposals are not educationally sound – it almost seems as if the government is doing its best to put children off reading for pleasure altogether. Is that what they really want? As one petition signatory said: “We are supposed to love them, not treat them like employees”…


4 responses to this post.

  1. Frances, this is tough stuff, isn’t it? Engaging with the politics of education – and indeed all things related to children in society – is especially hard when you have your own children, because everything has a personal resonance. Being involved in campaigning for children’s rights, I have at times turned myself inside-out trying to live with reality when I can almost smell how much I want something different. Defending your choices when people just don’t get it can sometimes feel like a determined crusade to upset everyone in sight.

    Even so, I admit that I have some sympathy with folk who find themselves on the sharp end of views that I express to them (though I won’t weep for Jo Frost or her production company when they get the email I sent them today: I’m aware that it can be daunting to be on the receiving end of the passion and confidence that comes with a clear world-view. So I wonder a little if your daughter’s teacher was so concerned about talking to you on the subject of booster sessions that she messed up the delivery. Doesn’t excuse it – and certainly doesn’t excuse the irrelevant extra classes – but might explain the poor timing and delivery.

    That said, you made a clear, principled and sensible choice to remove your daughter from a conversation that would, inevitably, have reflected on whether or not she is ‘failing’ and needs ‘help’. All I can advise you – from bitter experience of not heeding this advice from my husband – is that you try not to spend the half term break replaying the event in your head. Enjoy the holiday, then go back to school and have the necessary conversation. It will go better than you fear, I’m sure.

    Best thing a friend with three grown-up children told me not so long ago was that the one who turned into the most voracious reader is the one who couldn’t begin to make any sense of the alphabet – let alone read – before he was seven.

    We know all this stuff is nonsense – and there’s a huge number out there who agree. Just have to marshall folk together and keep on about it.


  2. […] Read the original here: Government policy and guidelines (and their implementation) equal … […]


  3. Just picked up this from the GP forum, well done for standing your ground and protecting your daughter’s self esteem.

    San xx


  4. Not sure what to say but stay strong. I do think it was rather cowardly (for want of a better word) to bring this up at the end of the day when they break up for half term. You know your daughter best, stick tou what you know is best for her. I take it you can refuse this “help”.

    Dawn x


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