Saturday, 30 April 2016

Why I'll be supporting the Let The Kids Be Kids protest on Tuesday

On Tuesday 3 May 2016, parents up and down the land will be keeping their kids off school. Why? In protest at the unprecedented levels of testing that are now in force in our schools. Those in charge at the top may argue that the testing is necessary to assess the new primary curriculum. But when kids as young as six are describing themselves as 'failures', the system has become acutely out of balance. As a friend of a friend said, 'you don't make a pig fatter by constantly weighing it'.

And this is compounded by very worrying reports about levels of mental illness in children emerging, direct from the woman hired by the government to assess the system!

There are so many different views out there as to what constitutes good education. Probably as many views as there are kids, or as there are different ways of learning. My two sons learn in very different ways; their brains operate as if they were completely different organs. It's like comparing a tractor to a tricycle.

For one, the system is ideal - he learnt to read and write very early on, he can sit and concentrate for long stretches, he has an inquisitive brain and likes to ask questions and gain knowledge and ponder the answers. He loves school. And he's a boy born in the summer, apparently bucking the trend. But I'd argue this is very little to do with an education system that approaches him as an empty vessel waiting to be filled up. It just happens to suit the way his brain works.

My other son was also born in the summer but he approaches everything in life in pretty much the opposite way to his brother.  He's in Year 1 but is still so young and struggles with such a lot at school. He finds it hard to concentrate. He loves maths but isn't at all keen on English (although listening to stories is one of his favourite things), and gets so frustrated by not being able to read or write. His social skills aren't up to much and he carries the weight of the world on those small shoulders, worried that his 'brain doesn't work' and crippled by the anxiety of 'not knowing the rules'. It is painful to watch this demoralisation happen so early. The education system clearly does not suit his brain.

And it is a brain that has secret joys and life and potential, so much potential locked away in there. His creativity is astonishing. His imagination is extraordinary. His sweetness is utterly breathtaking.  That's him up there in the picture. While his classmates dressed for World Book Day as superheroes or Harry Potter, he went as a bat. Wearing armbands.

My biggest fear is that this spark will be extinguished by a world of school that just ignores his gifts and what he has to offer. It seems so incredibly unfair. Every minute I have with him I try to encourage his eccentricities, to love him for who he is and to reaffirm his innate skills, buoying up what little confidence he has left. But it doesn't seem enough.

Alongside this, there are question marks. The meetings with the teachers. The lack of play dates and birthday invitations. The educational psychologist's reports. My boy is in the midst of assessment, a scrutiny designed to find out just what sort of brain he has locked up in there.

It may be autism. It may not. Either way, today is the last day of April and therefore the last day of Autism Awareness Month. It's a world I don't understand yet but I'm so very grateful that there are amazing organisations out there fighting for kids like mine, bringing awareness and understanding to something so misunderstood, labelled and stigmatised.

Among a huge amount of information, there were two things I learned this month that really stood out. The first, this article about what it really feels like to live with autism. The second, this short film asking parents what it's like to live with a family member with autism. 'A constant state of high alert', said one, and this rang so true for me. For nearly six years I've been on my guard, waiting and watching, trying to prevent some damage to person or object, and wondering why the gap feels so great between my child and the rest. There have been times I've written about how tough I've found the early years of parenting - this post, for example - and other times when I've written but not published as it just felt too hard, too personal, too raw.

For us, a diagnosis could really change things. For the better.

But right now? I don't feel it's possible to support a system that ignores my child's needs. It feels fundamentally wrong. Actually - worse - it feels fundamentally damaging to my boy and his brilliant brain. And that's why he won't be going to school this Tuesday.

If you agree, you might like to check out the Let The Kids Be Kids campaign
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