Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The conveyor belt

In celebration of the fact that it seems we are not now facing a threat to our freedom, here's a bit of reflection on it!

I was very interested to watch some John Taylor Gatto on Gill’s blog the other day. I’m sure there is a great deal in his world view that I wouldn’t agree with, but I found myself nodding along with much of the video. At one point he asked a child for their response to a proposal and the child asked for time to think it through. Gatto made the point that children are given very little time to consider in our current system. That struck me as very true.

One of the most liberating things about home education is the feeling of having stepped off the conveyor belt. The years pass, the children grow and learn, but there is no sense of panic or deadline – unless you want to invite that into your lives. I have been noticing this a lot recently, as people have started to ask us what we are going to ‘do about secondary school.’ It is a strange thought that Pearl’s old school mates will all be filling in forms this autumn, agonising over the likelihood of one school or another. Secondary school admissions are a flaming potato in this town. There have been threats against councillors, fervent demonstrations, letters to the paper and even mentions on the national news. What has struck me is that families feel their children to be trapped, trundling along on the conveyor belt, fearful that the local politicians will suddenly change the direction of the chute and deposit them in a reject bin. There is panic – and no surprise really, given the endless measurement of the schools and the terrifying stories of bullying and chaos in some. We sit here, looking in from the outside, and wondering how it can be that we just jumped off that conveyor belt. It trundles on and we are free to wander.

When I look back at some of the parenting choices we made early in the children’s lives I am struck by the fact that we were influenced by the timetable of the schooling system – almost from the start. One of the most painful and stressful experiences we had was when Pearlie started nursery school. We were so anxious that we get ‘separation’ sorted out before school started. It seems so insane now that we pushed our three and a half year old child into forced separation for hours of every day. Because we were worried about what would happen when she was four we made her miserable when she was three. That tendency to always be looking ahead to the next ‘milestone’ is an essential element in the education system. An issue like ‘separation’ becomes a non-issue when you get off the conveyor belt. Clearly, children take steps in independence when they are ready – and without a looming deadline to ‘be happy to be left’ there is no need for all the stress and suffering. We have been too busy living to think much about whether or not Leo is happy to be left anywhere! Perhaps as a consequence he takes calm, gradual steps in independence and the lack of pressure has been a liberation for all of us.

I hope that we can keep our distance from the conveyor belt as the children get older. I know that some home edders feel a sudden panic when their children get to their mid teens and start to get stressed about qualifications. I hope that our children will be able to decide if and when they want to get some bits of paper. Whatever choices they make it is very unlikely that they will face those ‘summers of hell’ when doing heaps of exams in a single year.

I wish I had taken more time to think when I was younger – more time to consider what I wanted. Of course, I can do it now – and I am. I get to spend my time writing things like this, talking to my kids, learning about things I never thought I was interested in, questioning my politics, burbling on with Dani – and so on. But when I was on the conveyor belt I was always under pressure to get through the ‘stuff’, meet the deadline and start revising. If I found something I was interested in, that I wanted to give my time to, I was always wondering how much time I could give it before I must get ‘back to work’. I have heaps of diaries and writing from my teens and early twenties but it was never my ‘work’ at the time – it represents the hours I was ‘skiving’. But fifteen or twenty years later I realise that the ‘work’ is all gone – most of it passing through my head and away and most of the paper binned – and the writing I’ve kept is all that ‘skiving’.

It would be a lie to say that the journey along the conveyor belt brought me nothing. The bits of paper got me the job I do now. That job gives us the money to live the lifestyle we have now. But, actually, only the last qualification I got matters now – everything before it is irrelevant. All that teenage stress, those late nights, forcing the words onto the page – they count for nothing now. I hope that our children give themselves more time to try things out, follow their hearts, take a break – do whatever feels right.

The government seems determined to start the conveyor belt ever younger and keep it going ever longer. Many children these days pass through puberty at ten or so but they are to be denied adult status for almost a decade more. It seems to be all rush at the beginning – cut those apron strings – and then all delay, refusing to allow people of sixteen any more liberty than they had at six. And the defining feature of the conveyor belt is the deadline, the constant movement forward, the lack of time or space to stop and reflect.


Ruth said...

Brilliant post:)

Gill said...

Yes the children in that video were amazing, I thought. They made eye contact and were clear about their goals and genuine interests, weren't they?

And we've seen the difference here too - Lyddie is four now and it's amazing to think Zara had already started school by that age. We were lucky with that school in that they let me go too, but it's still blissful not having to follow the relentless schedule.

Funny how it all seems normal when you're there doing it and then afterwards you kind of rub your eyes and think: did we really do that?

Em said...

fantastic post. Thank you :)

peri said...

Interesting post.

Helen said...

Great post! I've been thinking a lot recently due to experiences at work, from speaking to C (& also programmes on TV!) about why so many kids seem to have such low self esteem. I think a large part of it is about being on that conveyor belt and having to reach the checkpoints at the "right" age. The result seems to be a sense of failure from a very early stage if you aren't ready to meet that particular milestone yet.

IndigoShirl said...


maya said...

great post, great reminders.