Breaking up with the state is hard to do

8th August 2003 at 01:00
feel like I've just emerged from a divorce. Not one fuelled by acrimony, but by a gradual, sad realisation that the relationship was not working. It wasn't as though my partner was all bad. Far from it. We'd had several very happy years together, and I knew there would be no shortage of people clamouring to take my place.

When I began to voice dissatisfaction with the relationship, mutual friends were shocked. What was I doing, they asked, changing allegiance from an enviable institution sanctioned by the state, to one that was at best strange, at worst downright weird? Throughout the process of separation, I wavered more than once. The alternative seemed so radical, so unfamiliar.

Even now that I have made the break, I don't know if I've done the right thing, but for the first time in months, I feel I can breathe again.

My daughter sailed through her high-achieving primary school. She learnt spellings, tables, how to label the parts of a broad bean. She sat quietly on the carpet during literacy hour and, quite voluntarily, did beautiful pieces of homework.

I disapproved of Sats - not quite enough to withdraw her from the tests in Year 2, but enough not to open the results envelope. I merely glanced at the league tables to see the school retain its position - at the top. The national curriculum, and the testing that went with it, wasn't perfect but it didn't seem to be doing my daughter harm. And when her Year 6 Sats results came out, I did read them - well, she wanted to know how she had done and it would have been unkind not to express my delight at her excellent results.

My son is three years younger than his sister. Intensely curious, articulate and enthusiastic, he followed her to the same school. At first I didn't notice that the system wasn't working for him. He didn't find phonics at all jolly. He seemed unable to sit cross-legged on the carpet for more than a couple of minutes. By Year 2, his teacher expressed surprise that reading had not "clicked" for him as she had expected. I glanced at his key stage 1 Sats results which forecast a gloomy outcome at key stage 2. By Year 3, he mastered the art of invisibility in the literacy and numeracy hours. Homework became a battle that usually ended in tears - mine if not his. He was put with a group of "less able" children. His teacher used the term "bright" to describe children who were meeting all the targets, but faltered when trying to find a word to describe those who were not.

Long before my son was diagnosed as dyslexic by an independent educational psychologist, I had begun to despair at the effect the education system was having on him and his friends on the "remedial table". I didn't care whether, at seven, my son could spell "onomatopoeia", or recite his four times table, but I did want him to become visible in a group again, and have confidence in himself and his many abilities, none of which would ever be reflected in the tests that he would continue to be subjected to, and continue to fail. I wanted him to be excited by learning, not just by the prospect of the school holidays.

The national curriculum, with its prescriptive literacy and numeracy hours, its compulsory testing, its relentless targets and resulting pressures on teachers is not a system that can possibly suit all children. For every child it does, there must be another for whom it is a negative and damaging experience. There are few alternatives to mainstream education and most are in the independent sector. Why won't a government which believes in state education, properly funded public services, and equal opportunities, fund Steiner schools and others like them?

We are fortunate in having a local Steiner school where my son has a place in September. The school is shabby and the children could not be described by inspectors as "well turned out", but it was clear from my son's visit, from which he returned bursting with excitement, that the needs of the individual child are at the heart of the system.

We don't know what the future holds, but after months of despondency we both feel a wonderful sense of liberation.

Sue Eckstein is a research fellow at the Centre of Medical Law and Ethics, King's College, London

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