The sun was shining, the sky was blue and the park was buzzing with weekend activity. Ahead of me, Mr Brighouse ran alongside our eldest as she took her new birthday bike for its inaugural journey. I was left with our small boy sat on the bike that he had just inherited from his sister.
“You are sitting really well,” I told him. “Now hold the handlebars and push your foot forwards on the pedal to make the bike move.” No response.
“Look, like this,” I said and pushed the bike forward a bit. “Now push your foot down on the pedal. Push.”
He gave me a look of complete incomprehension: a look that made me mentally flag him for some small group work with added one-to-one lunchtime intervention. I galvanised myself for the challenge. No one would be leaving the park until this bike had been successfully pedalled.
Ten minutes later, I was running out of ideas. I had used up every synonym for “push” in my lexicon; I had cajoled, bribed, knelt on the floor and physically pushed his feet round on the pedals but we still hadn’t moved further than half a metre.
“Come on. You can do this,” I told him. “Watch what your sister does with her feet and push the pedals down just like that.”
“Can I have a lollipop?” he asked, glancing wistfully over at the swings.
“Stop being such a teacher,” said Mr Brighouse. “He’s obviously not ready.” This was not the right thing to say. Teachers don’t deal well with failure and we know that not being ready is no excuse for missed targets.
School-ready, secondary-ready, university-ready, life-ready: in education today, readiness is all. Lagging behind is no longer acceptable. All of which puts a hefty strain on teachers and pupils alike, who are busting a gut to reach goalposts that keep being moved even as we progress towards them.
But forcing readiness upon those who are patently not at the right stage to move on is a tricky thing to do without letting a sense of failure creep in. Up and down the country there are children for whom modal verbs and division of fractions are simply beyond their grasp. They may be working their socks off, they may have made great progress – but if they’re not ready to meet expectations, then they have failed, you have failed, and they can now look forward to a few more years of cramming and retests until they are deemed fit to move on.
Sometimes, and often through no fault of their own, people simply aren’t ready for the next step. Newly qualified teachers aren’t always ready to deal with behaviour issues; 10-year-olds aren’t all ready to write like pedantic, middle-aged librarians; and some four-year-olds aren’t ready for the demands of school life.
I spent this morning attempting to get a group of children to master a mathematical concept that was clearly beyond their reach. “I just don’t get it, Miss,” one of them told me, his face a picture of worry. I heaped on praise and explained it once more. But what I really wanted to do was send him to the swings with a lollipop and tell him to come back and try again when he was ready.
Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands