My eldest son aged 3 was bright, imaginative and more than a bit anxious. He used to shy away from other children, preferring to spend time with the handful of grown-ups that he trusted enough not to hide behind the couch from. He had attended nursery from the age of 18 months, when I had taken on a part-time contract at work, but had never fully settled there. My journeys to and from work were often riddled with experiences of guilt. I would regularly find myself calling the nursery to enquire as to whether he had settled, with no real idea as to what I might do if they said he hadn’t. Thankfully (whether truthfully or pragmatically) they never did. As a summer baby, our son was due to start school a mere month after turning four. I was very worried about how he would cope.
Coupled with this, both my husband and I had difficult experiences of primary school. My main memories are of a driving and desperate sense of tedium, of row upon row of perfect joined up ‘s’s, interspersed with the sporadic frisson occasioned by some casual playground violence.
By the end of my primary schooling experience, I had, however, internalised some lessons. Some of these were intended: I knew how to read, I knew how to write and I could make some sort of attempt around basic arithmetic. Some of the other discoveries that I took away were almost certainly unintentional: that school was boring, that teachers were the enemy and that I was ‘rubbish’ at most subjects, especially maths (a belief which I was finally able to let go of at the age of 26 when I trained as a teacher and having been compelled to retake my maths GCSE achieved 94% on the paper after six weeks of supportive tuition).
By the time I arrived at secondary school any thirst I may have had for learning was largely switched off. I became an expert at feigning illness. If I could not have easily written a book, then certainly I could have written a weighty pamphlet on ways to avoid school. Wherever these ruses failed, I simply took myself along and (with the help of my ever-willing friends) simply tried to avoid imbibing any knowledge whatsoever. Like it was some disgusting medicine proffered by a well-meaning grown-up, I would simply appear to swallow what was given and then surreptitiously gob it out at the first possible opportunity.
To be utterly frank, I was one of those irritating children who simply sit at the back, staring gormlessly out of the window, occasionally passing notes to my mates and commenting derisively on the poor teacher’s dress sense or inability to pronounce certain words without also divesting themselves of a great deal of saliva.
My husband has his own experiences, which are for him to share if he ever wishes to do so, but needless to say, when the time came for us to find our marvelous first-born a school place, we approached the matter with a great deal of anxiety.
As a fully qualified teacher and as someone who has sat on a board of governors, I have long felt that the test culture in secondary and increasingly in primary schools is creating a factory-like education system driven by data, almost as though measurement itself is the measure of all things. OfSTED, which was founded with the ostensibly laudable aim of bringing all state schools up to a required standard, has become an admonishing finger that is designed to find schools and their teachers wanting. More sinisterly, it has also begun to prop up the government’s privatisation agenda, by insisting that all schools who fail to meet a set of ever-shifting criteria must be academised, whether the school community wish it or not.
We were looking for something different. We wanted our child to be free to pursue his interests and not to be squashed into a government-approved student shape. We wanted his assessment to be holistic and ongoing, based on him, as an individual. We wanted him to develop confidence, resilience and a deep rooted sense of himself.
We were living in a small Yorkshire town that (at that time), despite having a reputation for liberalism and organic cafes, had very little in the way of independent freethinking schools. When an opportunity arose for my husband to apply for a job in Sussex we began to look there instead and stumbled across the Lewes New School via a Google search. If I had needed convincing to pay it a visit the watching of a certain David Bowie cover performed by staff and students (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BsNVmOa5Pd4) gave me such a warm and fuzzy feeling about the school that I was momentarily visited with a mad desire to sign him up on the spot!
I did, however, have some reservations about whether he would find himself sufficiently challenged. Given the choice, might he not want to engage in any learning activities at all? Would he find what I then assumed was a lack of structure unsettling? We were lucky enough to visit the school at Christmas when the Year 6s had a project exhibition. We spoke to several incredibly engaging youngsters about their individual projects, which varied from forensic science to dinosaurs, creative writing and cookery. Each student seemed passionate, knowledgeable and keen to share.
I began to put aside my concerns about whether we might be putting our son at an educational disadvantage (one of the other private schools we had visited taught Mandarin from the age of three!). Instead, I began to think about the learning that I wanted him to internalise, about the intentional and unintentional lessons taught at primary school. If he could leave, aged 11, able to read, write and attempt some maths, whilst also thinking himself capable, resilient and with a continued thirst for learning, then the world would surely be, as we say in our family, his lobster.
Two and a half years on, not without his fair share of challenges, Henry is continuing to thrive. He has made deep and connected friendships, where children support each other and are not afraid to express difficult feelings. He is becoming increasingly resilient and confident, sometimes to the point where I have to wrestle with an inner parenting voice which comes straight out of the 1980s! He is known and valued by the staff at the school and most particularly by his teacher, Amanda, who has taught him on and off since he started at the school. She knows him at such a personal level that she can, more often than not, correctly recognise and interpret his facial expressions, without him saying a word!
My youngest is also at the school, having started in the nursery last September. Having done a lot of his growing up in the playground at drop-offs and pick-ups, LNS feels like his natural domain and he has settled to his mornings at nursery with relative ease, sometimes pushing me bodily out of the door in his haste to begin the important business of playing with his friends, telling his teacher Julie something important or singing and dancing with the wonderful music teacher who has been working across the school in the last term.
For me, the school has been a place to make friends and feel part of a community. It truly is at human scale, small but with a wide range of different backgrounds, perspectives, occupations and preoccupations. It is a place where growth and change seem possible. Our sons’ respective educations, as they move through the school, feel less predetermined and more part of an ongoing dialogue with the school. Sometimes that conversation can be difficult. On other occasions we swell with joyful pride, as we bear witness to our child growing up a little, taking a stride into a new phase of learning. I believe we are giving them a strong foundation, a sense of real possibility and for me, that’s what early education should be all about.