It’s very hard to believe the time has come for me to be thinking about this but now that Big Bear is in Year 5, apparently it has. The deadline for completing the high school preferences form is early in the autumn term of year 6 so most high schools recommend you look around in year 5. So despite the fact that Big Bear is only 9 years and 1 month old, we have visited two local high schools this week. It has been enlightening to say the least.
I have had many chats with other parents in similar positions and have asked them their thoughts. A common theme has featured in the conversations: parents are keen on discipline in high schools and look for those where lessons will not be disrupted by the behaviour of others. They want a strong focus on academics and opportunities for extra-curricular activity. Apparently performance in GCSEs is also important.
When I think about my own education, there was a strong focus on academics. We sat exams twice a year, every year from year 7 onwards. Exam results were impressive, ranking well in comparison to the rest of the country. I was a diligent student and placed a high level of pressure on myself to achieve. My academic performance was important to me and I set exacting standards for myself.
Why then, when other parents were describing the education they wanted for their child, an education not dissimilar to my own, did I feel a sense of discomfort and dissonance? What was it exactly that I wanted from a school for my boys, if it wasn’t that?
We visited the first school. I’ll call it School A. I tried to assess it objectively – what did I like about it? What didn’t I like? I liked the building. It was clean and fresh. It had good facilities. The staff were friendly. We wandered around and there wasn’t anything especially wrong or right about it. It seemed fine but I had no idea at all how we were supposed to make a decision. Big Bear didn’t look too comfortable though. He looked like a rabbit in headlights. Observing his reaction was important because it would be him going there every day, not me.
The Head was doing a presentation in the Hall so we went to listen to that. She began by saying, “We are not an exam factory. That is not what we are about.” She went on to describe a very well-structured and comprehensive pastoral care system. “If children don’t feel safe in this school and they don’t feel valued and they don’t feel loved, we know they won’t be able to learn,” she said. She went on to talk about the importance of building self-esteem and giving children a belief that they can achieve. She talked about personalised learning journeys and matching support to need. She spoke passionately, saying that when these fundamental things are in place, the academics will naturally take care of themselves.
Feeling a little tearful, I had a mini-revelation. I looked between Big Bear sitting beside me, pale with anxiety, and the Head extolling the virtues of pastoral support and I thought: I have two very different children and one school may not meet both of their needs. School A didn’t seem a good fit for Big Bear, but it was hard to imagine anywhere better for Little Bear.
We should keep an open mind but now it would be really interesting to see what School B was like. We went there this evening and the first thing we did was listen to the Head speaking. We had been given an information pack on arrival. We flicked through it while we waited for the speech and noted there was a leaflet about how they extend learning for those who are gifted and talented. I asked Grizzly to pass me the one about SEN. He couldn’t because there wasn’t one.
The Head began to speak and her first point was around their outstanding exam results. She talked about how they always strive for more and push students to the next hurdle where they can. She talked of twice yearly exams and practice interviews and preparing for future careers. She talked about setting aspirational targets and achieving them. I knew I was supposed to be impressed. I sat amongst a sea of other parents who were no doubt impressed and keen for their child to be a part of this educational wonderland.
I know I was once a part of this academically focussed world and I suppose it has done me well. But I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with what I now often find to be academic snobbery. Yes, it is great if you are gifted with intelligence and you work hard and you go on to achieve fabulous grades. But what if you are not? What if, through no fault of your own, you have been dealt a different hand? What if you have various life-induced hurdles putting blocks in your academic path? What about you? How do you fit into this daunting and challenging world?
I found out how you fit. You don’t.
The Head at School B said this: “I will not tolerate anybody disrupting lessons. Stealing other student’s learning time is selfish. It is selfish and it will not be tolerated here.” At this point, Grizzly and I exchanged a look. The look said, “There is not a chance on God’s green earth that we will be sending Little Bear here.” People like discipline, they do. I like discipline when it is about clear boundaries and predictability. Other people like discipline when it prevents their child’s learning getting disrupted by another child. The problem is everything feels very different when the child doing the disrupting is yours.
Little Bear would never purposefully disrupt a lesson. He would never disrupt a lesson for the pure reason of being selfish. But he might disrupt a lesson and yes, he might disrupt your child’s learning. By saying he, or anyone else who might find school difficult, disrupts lessons selfishly and then sending them to the ‘internal exclusion zone’ places the blame squarely on the child. It assuages the adults of having had anything to do with it and it suggests there is no reason to consider why the child behaved like that. They were selfish. That’s why they did it.
In reality, Little Bear would disrupt a lesson because he was dysregulated, anxious or overwhelmed. That being the case, I don’t want him to be punished by being sent to sit alone somewhere. I don’t see how that would help him or how it would make something different happen next time. If anything it would increase his anxiety or frustration and increase the likelihood of future disruption. I am not suggesting that all children are angels or that they shouldn’t be taught to take responsibility for their actions. Of course they need to learn to self-regulate and to behave appropriately but with the best will in the world, not all children can, all of the time and I don’t see how its fair or appropriate to punish them when they lose control. When it is your child who struggles with behavioural and emotional regulation, you feel very differently about behaviour policies. You also feel pretty uncomfortable when other parents tell you how important it is to them that their child’s lessons are not disrupted by ‘bad behaviour’.
As things stand, with Little Bear’s needs as they currently are, we couldn’t consider sending him to School B. I don’t think he would be able to reach his potential there because he might not feel safe and there’s a good chance he wouldn’t feel loved. Big Bear, however, was visibly happier there. He felt safe, comfortable and interested. He will cope with the academic focus. There is very little chance of him disrupting lessons or ending up in the exclusion zone. Ironically, he would cope much better if he didn’t witness disruptive behaviour, a point which ties me in complex emotional knots. We can imagine him at the school and I’m sure he would thrive. This time it is about Big Bear and we all think the right school for him is School B.
It is another 4 years until we have to make a proper decision about Little Bear. His needs could change immeasurably in that time (as they already have done over the past three) and maybe School B could be right for him by then. But maybe it won’t be. Perhaps School A’s ethos and sporting opportunities and tailored curriculum would suit him much better. It doesn’t matter because I have two very different boys, each with their own set of strengths and challenges and now I know what I want from their high school education. I want them to be happy there. I want them to have access to teaching and pastoral support that meets their individual needs. I want them to be supported to reach their full potential because I know they can both achieve great things. I’m not really interested in those achievements being measured in terms of letters or numbers but in terms of working their hardest, doing their best and being satisfied with their own efforts. I want them to enjoy learning. I want them both to gain a sense of self-belief that will allow them to go on to further education or employment. I want them to be proud of themselves.
If that involves sending my children to two different high schools, so be it. But I certainly won’t allow Little Bear to be blamed for having the needs he has. He didn’t ask for his start in life and it isn’t his fault it has impacted him. If a school can’t understand this, he won’t be gracing their corridors.