Erosions of childhood

Yesterday, Jake was out of bed (yes, on a Sunday morning!) to present a floral tribute on behalf of the town to honour the war dead. I was super-proud of him. He’d only had to do it as a last-minute thing (the man who’d brought us the apples turned up and I felt a bit guilted into it… bring apples one day and ask boys to be out of bed before midday on a Sunday… bit of an ask!) but I thought it was really cool he decided to take part in it and that he didn’t moan, though that was probably more because his friends were there and he got to do something with them.

Anciens Combattants parade

Yesterday, 200 specialists sent an open letter to the Government in England asking them to address the ‘erosion of childhood’ that’s happening there. I agree. I think a lot of children in England aren’t children any more. I speak as someone who entered her teen sulks around 12 years old, but I had a good 12 years before that! It made me think a lot about Jake and how different his life is here. Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware of the dissenters and I’m aware of how hard it is for him to be away from close family. I’m aware there are a few people who think he’d be better off in England where he could benefit from the handful of family relationships rather than have 1,000 miles between us and them. I know it’s hard for them to be apart, even if they didn’t see him that much in England over the last 5 years, despite how much they think they saw each other. I can understand why they think that life in England would be better, for those handful of relationships, but I for one think what he has here is infinitely better than what he had back in Bury.

Presenting floral tributes

First off, he’s off out on a real live school trip this afternoon. He’s taking a magnifying glass, a box with air holes, some gloves and some tweezers. Shouldn’t that be how science is? He was happily packing his rucksack this morning. I used to do school trips in England. I took hundreds of kids to football matches and ice-hockey at the weekend. I stopped doing that round about 2000 because it got too difficult. The paperwork was epic. I was no longer allowed to make the phone calls or collect the money or arrange a coach because the unions thought I should be marking. And Ofsted upped a notch and made exam results the most important thing about school. I no longer had time to sort out coaches and tickets and money as much as I’d want. By the time it got to 2007, the only trips I did were ‘educational’ theatre trips and by-and-large, if you went somewhere, you did it on your own time. No other teacher was willing to let their precious children out or ‘waste’ a single moment of cram-time. The night when I was supposedly on the phone with colleagues collaborating and cheating according to the now-defunct National Assessment Agency, I was with 60 kids, 8 members of staff and a glass of wine at the Lowry. We got back to my house at 11pm. I’m not sure when I had time to fit ‘cheating’ into my day. That was the only trip those children went on all year. I value stuff like that. 140 other members of staff didn’t.

The second reason I’m glad we’re here is that Jake didn’t do some of his homework last night. You may wonder why I’m glad about that. He was supposed to write a journal entry for his homework in his cahier de vie – his ‘life’ book – saying what he’d done this weekend. Unfortunately, he was too busy having a life to write about it. I can’t say I mind much. He’ll do it tonight and catch up, but he spent yesterday being part of a community and then playing with his friends. He got back at 8pm. I’ve got to say, the more French he learns, the more friends he makes. He’s a very friendly little boy and his French friends love him.

Alexis, his partner in school, has become besotted by him, according to his grandfather. I like that too. His grandmother rang me to ask if Jake could go up to play. Mums and Nanas arrange play dates. I know who his friends’ parents are and they know us. Last year, Jake’s best friend Julian cried when Jake jokingly told him he was moving back to England. No-one cried about Jake moving to France.

Julian was apparently very upset that Jake had had a sleepover at Alexis’s. He wanted Jake to sleep at his. And he’s not just roaming the streets with kids we don’t know. Here, he doesn’t get in fights on the street. He doesn’t have any French friends who have a Facebook account. None of his French friends are ‘in relationships’ on Facebook and none of them know what lol is, or its French equivalent. They have xboxes, sure, but I’m of the opinion that an xbox is like modern-day soldiers for modern-day boys. It’s Action Man, virtually. It’s a world inhabited by boys with a whole imaginary, visual world.

The children waiting for the procession to start

And we’re not always soaking wet here, so when he does go out, he doesn’t come home wet to the bone. He has friends with swimming pools but the gap between the haves and the have-nots in France is not so obvious. No-one wears football shirts or expensive kits that change every year to boost the income of footballers. No-one wears trainers that cost more than 20€.

Jake and three of the children from his school

His exercise books are marked regularly. They aren’t filled with worksheet after worksheet. His teachers have a clearer understanding of teaching principles than most teachers in England do. I spent 3 years trying to get 200 English teachers to understand what an outcome is. Here, they have lovely little self-assessment sheets that are validated by his teacher. Sure, he does some copying and they still have dictation to check their spellings. How terrible! Spelling tests… in this day and age? Who’d have thought it? How very backwards. He has no interactive whiteboard. I think there’s a projector. La Maitresse still has a chalk board. I last had a chalkboard in 1999. I last saw a chalkboard – oh, I think in about 2006. Very backwards, chalk boards. How on earth will he make the same progress without a suite of laptops and ipods? The school might be like something from Cider with Rosie but his teachers have a better understanding of actual learning than most I know in England. And that’s depressing. 15 billion pounds on English Education following Blair’s ‘Education. Education. Education.’ speech – and I still know plenty of teachers who still have no idea what learning looks like, though they’re very good at playing DVDs on their £3,000 interactive whiteboards.

Not only that, when he’s 15, he’ll get to choose real courses. At Broad Oak, he has a choice of mechanics or hair and beauty if he fancies doing something vocational. That’s it. Two courses. And speaking as someone who’s worked in over 35 schools to some degree or another, I know vocational courses are very much for naughty kids who are foul-mouthed and disenfranchished.

The village parade to the war memorial

Last year, I taught a lovely boy. He really wanted to do a mechanics course. He’s a really practical boy and he knew what he wanted to do. His dad is a mechanic and he dreamed of opening his own specialist VW garage. He knew that’s what he’ll be doing. The school have a mechanics vocational course but they wouldn’t let him do it because he had half a chance of getting 5 A*-C and he was well-behaved. Plus, to be honest, it’d have been a dead loss because he’d have been put with all the lads that can’t sit still and think it’s okay to tell teachers to fuck off.

In France, if you are practical, like Jake is, it’s not seen as a terrible sin. You don’t have to be thick or naughty to do a vocational course. Artisans – craftsmen – are celebrated members of the community. Practical knowledge is well-paid. Building, plumbing and carpentry are seen as skilled trades rather than something for Polish men to come and do so we can then moan about them and how much of our 100€ callout charge is going back to Poland. There are hundreds of vocational courses. Hundreds. In England, there are 14. Hair and Beauty, catering, health and social care and ‘leisure and tourism’ are pretty much the options for girls. The options are a bit wider for boys. They can do construction or mechanics as well. What we’re doing is setting up a nation whose vocations are focused around tertiary industry. We’ve got a nation of hairdressers and beauticians. Or you do GCSEs in a limited range of subjects and then you do a narrower range of A levels. Past 14, you don’t have to do another language. Past 16, you don’t have to do science, or maths or English. |Ironically, the pupils who didn’t get a C grade are not encouraged to do qualifications in English, Maths or Science in college (unless they’re re-sits to get them up to that golden C grade) so if you’re rubbish at basic skills, you don’t do more of them – you just don’t do them at all.

In France, you keep doing basic skills in French and Maths – whether you’re on a traditional course or whether you’re doing a technical/vocational course.

Don’t even get me started on £9,000 tuition fees and ‘free’ education. I know I wouldn’t be going to University if I got my A levels these days. I couldn’t afford it. I wouldn’t have taken the risk that I’d be able to pay back my debt afterwards. I’d have gone into something like banking at 18, where they train you in house. And I’d have been bored rigid and mostly incapable. And I have to ask myself: do I want Jake to be limited in the ways that English education is limited these days? Do I want him living in a city where his bike gets stolen, where he has little to do other than hang around?

None of his friends have iphones or blackberry devices. None of them wear Nike or Reebok. They will, of course, but when they’ve had a childhood. One of the girls at his school had a Hello Kitty t-shirt on yesterday. She’s 10. No 10 year old at Jake’s previous school would wear a Hello Kitty t-shirt, not even ironically.

I know it’s probably twee and over-nostalgic of me to want him to have a life in a village where the mayor and the headmistress are integral members of the community, where elders are respected and children play. Maybe he hates me for wanting that for him but just maybe he’ll be a little bit glad in 20 years’ time that we did our best to stretch out his childhood as long as we could and find him a system where being a practical little boy isn’t seen as some kind of damnation.

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