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'I' is for idyllic - or it could be indolence

It wasn't until my daughter's best friend started playing with our alphabet fridge magnets that I began to panic about my children's future. Not that little Lucy, then four and the same age to the day as my daughter Ella, was shoving them up the nose of the baby or any other of the trillion anti-social uses for a fridge magnet that my children have discovered.

No, it was far, far scarier than that. Lucy was using them to spell out "lid"and "dog". She and her family had come over from the UK to visit us in Brussels for the weekend, and things had been going so well. Now I was getting shivers up my spine and Ella watched in awed silence, before asking me: "What is she doing? And when can I do that too?" The answer, in the Belgian state education system, is not for a long, long time. Part of me is even beginning to think that "dog" and "lid" may be out of reach forever, though in my rational moments I know that Ella, now five, will finally have her first brush with literacy in the next academic year, at six.

The results are said to be spectacular - holding off until this age means that you go from a tabula rasa to the dizzy heights of the Walloon version of Harry Potter in weeks, missing out completely on such instruments of torture as flashcards and Annie-the-Apple.

In the meantime, she is having an idyllic time at school, being treated pretty much as she was on her first day, when she was two-and-a-half. Then, a good morning's work meant a heavy session in the sandpit, followed by plenty of colouring and a serious break for snacks. Today, I still empty a mini-Sahara out of each shoe before we sit down to admire her latest sheaf of drawings, liberally sprinkled with Belgian waffle crumbs.

This wouldn't matter, of course, if we weren't going back to the UK. After all, Europeans manage rather well on this system, eventually collecting their Baccalaureate at 18 with no ill effects to show for their sandpit years apart from terrible wear and tear on the socks. Slotting back into the British education system, though, is going to be the hardest work poor Ella has ever done.

We are not alone in our anguish - recently friends returning to Britain hired a private tutor for their children before even thinking of booking the remval vans. To no avail: their daughter, who had been in the highest stream in her private, English-language Brussels school, was turned down by three independent schools in the UK, on the grounds that her reading age was "just not up to scratch". She was only six months over her chronological age, instead of the required two years.

We would much rather Ella went into the State system - but could we really drag her from sandpit to SATs tests in one year?

Aha, but this lazy mother is not putting the work in herself, I hear you cry. Wrong. Like every anxious middle-class mummy, I've been trying to educate my child since she was a foetus, starting with playing her soothing Bach in utero, progressing to ABC books and number games as soon as she showed her face.

I now have a shelf of "teach your child to read and write" books, all promising they are perfectly attuned to the national curriculum - we even boast one with Carol Vorderman on the cover, though obviously we have to keep that one face down as the three-year-old is prone to nightmares.

I soon discovered, though, that there was little point in trying to unravel the mysteries of the alphabet in lower case, when the few words the school was introducing were all printed firmly in capitals. Now things are more complicated still, as Ella tries to conquer the cursive style.

All she writes is her name, naturally, but watching her at it is like seeing a bareback rider on a bucking broncho, as she struggles with all those undulating curves. If I'd known we'd spend her early years in Belgium, I'd have given her a name without loops.

Yet as Ella and her classmates happily conduct experiments with water, find out about Ancient Egypt (there was lots of sand there, she says) and, above all, learn to listen to each other politely and attentively, I wonder which system is wrong.

Is it the one which allows children the freedom to develop before they have to learn, and sees the vast majority of its children through at least the first year of university, or the one which produces whey-faced little mites, struggling precociously to compose "lid" and "dog", whose enthusiasm and education end abruptly at 16?

Alice Castle is a freelance journalist

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