A school trip to see the London Philharmonic Orchestra

Yesterday I accompanied my six year old son on a school trip to see the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. It was an experience. Let me share some of the highlights.

Five mums, including myself, had volunteered to join the class on this trip. Having gone on a school trip the previous year, I was not keen to volunteer again. My son, however, was rather persistent in his nagging. His burning wish to have his mum be one of the grown ups on the trip finally wore me down, together with a memory of something similar that happened to me when I was a child.

I remember that we were going on a school outing to Hyde Park and the teacher had asked for some parents to volunteer to come with us. Without my mother’s knowledge I put her name down as one of the volunteer parents. It had irked me for a long time that my parents did not conform to the norms of parenthood as exhibited by the others in my class. For starters, they never attended parents meetings. “Why should we?”, my dad would ask. “We know you are doing well”. It seemed to them that parents should only get involved if there were a problem and since end of term reports consistently showed me getting good grades and positive comments, they felt there was no need for them to traipse all the way over from Acton, where we lived, to South Kensington only be told what they already knew.

So when the teacher asked for parents to join us on the trip, something in me could not resist volunteering my own mother. But how to convince her to actually do it? I decided I would tell her that the teacher urgently needed to meet with her to discuss a problem I was having at school. “Problem? What kind of problem?” asked my mum. I would not say but kept insisting it was very important and urgent. My mum dutifully turned up at the appointed day for this urgent meeting. Being of diminutive stature, she was wearing high heels and looking smart, as she would for a meeting. Imagine her surprise when she realised she had been roped in to a school trip in wet and muddy weather! She gamely trooped along with her high heels in the mud, trying to ignore the bemused looks from others at her lack of sensible footwear. Poor mum!

Fast forward to this week and of course I gave in to my son and said I would go. Yesterday morning, we all trooped into the classroom and each parent was given a sheet with the names of the children assigned to their group. I was considered a novice (not having volunteered for previous expeditions this year) and was thus given an easy group of children including my son. That was a relief! There was a slight hiccup when the teacher realised that one extra parent had turned up and she had to diplomatically tell him that he couldn’t accompany us as there were not enough tickets. She escorted him out of the classroom and shortly after that, the school secretary came in and called the name of the boy whose father had just been ejected. It seemed the child would not be allowed to go on the trip if the father could not go too. What a shame, I thought, poor boy to be taken out of the class like that. Fortunately, someone must have spoken to the parents and convinced them to change their minds as the boy was returned to the classroom at the very last minute.

We had a quick briefing from the teacher. We would be going shortly, she explained, taking the train to Clapham Junction and then Waterloo. We would be having lunch as soon as we arrived at the Festival Hall, which seemed a bit early in my view. But I had underestimated how challenging it is to shepherd thirty children all the way to Waterloo.

We had barely got round the corner from the school before we stopped. A young girl at the front of our convoy was crying and saying she had hurt herself on her face though I could not see a single scratch on her. It took five minutes to get the Teaching Assistant (who was also the designated first aider) to come to the front and check her out. As I suspected, there was nothing wrong with her and, once she had calmed down a bit, we got going again. Stopping and starting, stopping and starting, we eventually made it to the Royal Festival Hall, by which time it was nearly midday. It really does take all morning to herd a classroom of children from West Norwood to Waterloo!

We sat down on the floor in a corner of the Royal Festival Hall and had our lunch. Having learned from previous experience, I had packed our own lunch rather than eat the school one. Who in their right minds thinks that six year old children, with their wobbly teeth, would enjoy eating baguette sandwiches? Crusty bread is quite a challenge for children of that age. One of my son’s friends lost a tooth biting into the baguette and then dropped the tooth over the banister down to the lower level. There followed a fruitless search for the missing tooth. Then of course, we had to do the various toilet expeditions in a theatre teeming with hundreds of other small children. Finally, after what seemed an age, we went into the auditorium and took our seats.

The performance, specially designed for Key Stage 1 children, was the story of Stan and Mabel, with a lovely score composed for it and easy songs for the children to participate in. I thought it was great. Well done to all who produced this show. Things have changed a lot since I was a child. Nothing like this was ever on offer in my day. All I remember is being trouped along to the French Institute to watch “Le Ballon Rouge” every year. But do these lucky children know how lucky they are? In the midst of the performance, I looked around to see how everyone else was enjoying it. Some children seemed to be happily singing along but quite a few looked distinctively bored and sleepy. The child in the row in front had fallen fast asleep and the mum whose group he was in was wondering whether or not to nudge him awake. I looked behind me to check on my friend’s daughter and found that she too was looking rather fatigued. On my right the TA was struggling to keep awake too. Perhaps the first day after half term was not the best day for a theatre trip. As for my son, he alternated between singing along and snuggling up to me, telling me I was the best mummy in the world and generally basking in my presence. What more could I ask for?

Not even the arduous journey back to school could dim my glow at having made my child happy. And then home, to put my feet up and have nice cup of tea.

When did school become so divisive?

Yesterday we braced ourselves for parents evening at our 6 year old son’s school. What should have been a straightforward, breezy discussion about what a good boy he is, how well he is doing, what small areas of improvement there might be for us to assist him with was marred by the big issue that has been concerning us all year: ability banding, otherwise known as streaming.

What happens is this. The children are divided into three ability groups (for convenience I will call them higher, middle and lower levels). In a classroom of 30 children they are divided into five tables, two at the higher ability level, two at the lower and one middle one. The children sit at their assigned table and are given work according to the ability level of their table. Their homework is also different according to their assigned ability level.

The idea behind this system is that it helps teachers to work more effectively with the children by tailoring lesson content to their ability. The children, supposedly, are not aware of this system as the tables they sit on tend to have cheery names of animals, flowers or trees. In reality, most children are well aware that there are tables for the clever ones and tables for the not so clever ones. According to recent research by the Institute of Education at the University of London, one in six primary school children in England are now “streamed” and this is a trend that is set to grow in the coming years as the streaming orthodoxy gains traction within decision making circles.

Yet the research by the Institute of Education found that while children placed in the top stream enjoyed significant positive benefit compared to those who had not been streamed, those in the middle and lower streams tended to do worse compared to children who were not streamed. In other words, this system benefits roughly a third of pupils but disadvantages the other two thirds. If you add to this equation the findings of the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) which indicate that children from poorer backgrounds are found to be disproportionately placed in lower streams, then you begin to see that this educational system not only favours the brighter students, it also strongly favours children from wealthier households. Hardly a recipe for social cohesion! More importantly, this shows that it is not actual ability of the child that makes the difference at this stage but the parents’ ability to coach them.

Our son’s experience in the classroom mirrors these findings. The children who sit in the two lower ability tables in his class tend to be from poorer, more disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and the children in the two higher tables mostly have well educated parents. My son is stuck in limbo in the middle. He is a bright, inquisitive and quick-witted boy. He is also very reserved in front of people he is not familiar with. In the critical first few weeks of school, when the teacher gets to know the children and assesses them, he failed to make much of an impression.

I was blithely unaware of the situation as of course, the school does not make it a policy to inform parents that their children are being streamed. One day, walking home from school, he happened to mention that the work he got given in class was too easy for him and that the children sitting at two other tables were doing harder work. He had also noticed that there were other tables doing super easy work. He wanted to be on the tables where the more interesting and challenging work was being given. My first reaction was to tell him that he needed to work harder on his reading, which was a bit of a struggle, so that he could impress his teacher with his improvement and get moved up to the harder work table. To be honest, up until then, I had not been one of those parents that spent long hours hot-housing their child. I read him stories at night but that was about it. I assumed, wrongly, that a bright boy would thrive in an Ofsted Outstanding school, regardless of whether I spent hours coaching him at home or not. The mistake was quickly rectified and we upped our game, practising reading and writing at home whenever possible. Within a short space of time I detected a massive improvement but this didn’t translate into a “promotion” at school.

There seems to be a lack of fluidity in the way streaming works in British primary schools. Once placed in that middle ability table, my son has not been able to move up despite our many talks with the teacher and head. To promote him would mean the “demotion” of another child. There lies the problem. The system by its very nature puts children in competition with one another. The status afforded to the children on the “clever” tables means they will resist being moved down. My son tells me that this did in fact happen to one of the children who was struggling with the higher ability work and needed to be moved down. He cried and cried and refused to change table. I don’t blame him! In the great British tradition of things, the streaming system seems to be a first past the post system.

In our case, we were told there were no “vacancies” in the higher tables but as a palliative they promised to give my son the same hard work as the top streamed children while still sitting on the middle table. It came as no surprise to us that he quickly adapted to the harder work. We have also been assured that next year all children will start again on an even playing field. Needless to say, we will be more prepared and make sure he isn’t unfairly placed in the middle again. I do wonder what effect streaming at such a young age has on the self esteem of children and on the way they perceive themselves. I noticed my son saying on more than one occasion that he wasn’t clever. This may have been an excuse for not making enough of an effort on his homework but it worried me enough that I now make it a point everyday to praise his cleverness.

My son is one of the lucky ones. He has us fighting his corner. Not all children are so fortunate. How many primary school children are being left behind because of the socio-economic backgrounds of their parents not their lack of ability?