Let's stop treating children as cattle

13th July 2007 at 01:00
Libby Purves is a novelist and broadcaster. She presents 'The Learning Curve' on BBC Radio 4

Some anxious and aspirational women (so says the Telegraph, which should know) refuse to have sex in the run-up to Christmas. If they do get pregnant, they book their Caesarians for September 1 rather than August 31. This is to avoid having a summer baby who will be the youngest in the class; September 1 is the cut-off date and you must start school the year you become five. And, of course, most schools don't like having wrong-age children in classes because of the Sats system. And later on it mucks up the GCSE league tables.

Thus, summer-born children are likely to be younger than their classmates and according to a higher education funding council report which panics these alpha-mummies they are also likely to get bullied, do badly at sport and miss out on university. I suppose the figures can't lie, though I must admit I had one of each and the system suited them both pretty well. Still, that might be because the summer baby was so alarmingly confident and lairy, not to mention tall and pugnacious. What takes your breath away is the arrogant inhumanity of a system in which this has, statistically, been able to happen for so long.

Why the hell should we have to fit in with the local authority calendar rather than our child's needs and nature? Why are testing authorities so fixated on precise ages and standardised life-stages? Are we dealing with fatstock or children here? Americans can choose when their child starts school; Europeans start much later than we do. Few other countries are so anxious that tests and exams should be taken at precise ages, let alone mark their schools only according to a rigid age cohort (my daughter got a hatful of classy GCSEs which did her school no good at all in the tables, since she was 15).

This is one of many slivers of evidence suggesting that the education improvement agenda has lost sight of the fact that children are not economic units or computer programs, but individuals, products of diverse families, cultures, genes, accidents, talents and temperaments. Too many absurdities have been accepted in the rubric: I remember for journalistic purposes getting the said daughter tested at age six by an educational psychology company, and because her reading age was nine and her maths age only eight, the ed-psych loonies said there was a "problem" as a bright child should "progress uniformly in all areas". But they don't, they never have, and this way lies madness.

So cautiously, fearing bureaucratic snarl-ups I am pleased at the distinction being drawn between the new Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) and Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS). Whatever the glitches or risks of things falling down the middle (like the lairy apprentice on DIUS's books who is also involved in the DCSF youth justice agenda) it seems to me a useful statement. It might stop us thinking of infants as units, and 10-year-olds as mere economic investments. Fingers crossed.

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