In which direction should one pass the buck?

12th September 2003 at 01:00
Dear David Bell, My son starts school this month and I thought you'd be reassured to know that he can use a knife and fork. He talks to adults and other children; in fact, sometimes I can't get him to shut up. But don't worry - I'm sure he'll be quiet when his teacher asks him to be. We haven't quite mastered shoelaces yet but this is not because of a disruptive home life. His dad and I have always been very good like that, and have only ever been unstable on a Friday night when the children are asleep.

Some things did occur to me though, David, and I'm sure you won't mind me pointing them out to you. You say that "Everyone wants children to start well at the age of five", but I don't know any child who starts school at five. They are all in reception classes at the age of four, being given worksheets on the correct way to make a letter "a". Apparently, it's with a little flick at the bottom of the stick.

Now, I realise it's much cheaper to have 25 four-year-olds to one teacher, but if these children were still in a nursery school with more adults to each child, they could all be taught social skills and how to tie their shoelaces. Then they could all start school at six or seven much more ready to learn. My friend is from Sweden and she says this works very well over there.

Come to think of it, more children in this country than ever before go to pre-school. I gather the Government is quite proud of this. Shouldn't behaviour on starting school have improved as a result? When I helped out at my son's nursery I saw that the children were indeed no angels. I wouldn't blame the parents, though - even the most placid children were confused by adults who'd been trained not to shout, not to single out badly behaved individuals, not to make negative comments, not to impose any structure, and not to impose any discipline.

Now David, your recent comments did get me thinking about my own infant school days. There were plenty of kids who couldn't use a knife and fork properly, so I'm sure this is not a recent phenomenon. Anyway, at lunchtime we all used to sit down together, six to a table. I still remember the teachers walking round showing us how to eat properly, even telling us to keep our lips closed, sit up straight and keep our elbows off the table. I think they saw it as part of their responsibility to teach us these things.

Nowadays, teaching children social skills and discipline seems to be just a question of passing blame. Parents blame schools, and teachers take their lead from the top, David, and follow your example in passing the buck on to parents. As adults squabble among themselves about who is to blame for a lack of discipline, children learn only one lesson: how to avoid responsibility.

Joanna Williams teaches English at a further education college in Kent

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