Legend has it that in the year of 1284, the Pied Piper of Hamelin lured 130 of the town’s children to an unknown fate, in an act of revenge against the Mayor, by seducing them to follow music from a magical pipe – the same pipe previously used to save the town from an infestation of rats. A job he was never paid for.
Unlike most classical fairytales, this sinister story does not have a happy-ever-after ending. Depending on what version you read, the Pied Piper either led the children to a river where they met their watery deaths or merrily enticed them to a mountain where they were swallowed by a promised land. Either way, they were never seen again.
Reportedly, only three children remained. One child was lame, and could not keep up. Another was deaf and could not hear the music, while the third child was blind and could not see where he was going. Ultimately, their ailments saved them.
Now, leap forward to 2017 and imagine this legend, not as a whimsical tale, but as a modern story of fact, with all its 21st-century trimmings.
Imagine for one moment that the Secretary of State for Education has been cast as the modern-day Pied Piper. Her magical pipe has been replaced by an ambitious curriculum with impressive, persuasive melodies. Promises of a brighter future and great rewards for all.
All our children must do to reap the rewards of this auspicious new future is follow the hordes, keep pace and chase that pitch-perfect ‘C’ (or whatever number equivalent it has arbitrarily been replaced with these days)
Or is it?
This, for us, is not a far-fetched story of great promise or an illusion false in hope – this is the tale of our reality. As the dulcet tones of the Pied Piper of Education infiltrate our house, our life, our every waking moment, we watch in horror as our 14-year old daughter desperately tries to keep up; expending all energy in the fight, forgoing her health, well-being and sense of safety. As we watch on, despairing at the sight, she continues to heave her tired body forward, but the invisible chains inside her, hold her back. Despite all efforts, she makes no progress at all.
Crippling anxiety, amongst other things, have frozen her to the spot.
In the cold light of day, we are forced to face the bittersweet reality. Our daughter is not able to stand shoulder to shoulder with her peers because she is ‘different’. As all the ‘normal, happy, healthy’ children march forward behind the Pied Piper, we must ponder ‘what does that mean for our child?’.
Is it conceivable that today, with all the progress we have made since 1284, that children with ailments/disabilities/challenges are still left behind? Should we feel grateful for a lucky escape, or disgruntled that our daughter is being penalised because she can’t keep pace?
The Pied Pipers route is arduous, stressful, wearisome and difficult to navigate – even for the fittest and wisest of children, so, what happens to the stragglers, the spirited, the triers, the challenged, the weak, the wild, the weird, the bullied, the abused, the carers, the non-conforming – the likes of our daughter who can’t keep up through no fault or choosing of her own?
What does the journey look like for the children with Asperger Syndrome, ADHD, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Fragile X Syndrome, Dyscalculia, Social Anxiety or other learning difficulties? Those that don’t quite meet the threshold for a statement of educational needs or an ECH Plan?
Do we even care?
Do we really write them off at such a tender age? Are we content for them to feel like failures, despite their courageous battles to kowtow? Are we prepared to force them down a less-regarded ‘alternative’ route in an attempt to reach a similar land of fortune? Or do we lower our expectations and just hope that they ‘survive’ and find their own opportunities amongst the pitying judging eyes of the people who marched to the beat before and reaped the rewards?
With the introduction of the Equality Act in 2010, we thought it was the end of discrimination against anyone with a physical or mental disability. Yet, we only have to look at the colossal surge in elective home educators to see a growing army of brave parents who are doing a tremendous job, in the face of fear and adversity, to pick up the pieces and salvage the self-esteem and hope of these young people. They do not remove their children from school because they want to (although there is a growing number who are). They draft carefully considered de-registration letters because they have to. Because any good parent cannot stand by and see an industrial-aged system; a factory regime – crush the creativity, spirit and light from within the greatest legacies they have to offer.
Perhaps the most sickening part of this sorrowful tale is that the world is missing out. The relentless persistent whittling of the Pied Pipers tune is denying us much needed colour and vibrancy. These young people who fall out of the great stampede have something unique and brilliant to share with the world. Whether they are entrepreneurs with dyspraxia, tormented artists or autistic children with a gift for Mozart. Faced with a different tune, these talented youths can dance like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and sing like Sinatra.
The academic yardstick is being used to crush the free-thinkers, the creatives, the entrepreneurs, the writers, musicians, artists, actors, sports heroes and above all, the quiet, unassuming introverts. We overlook these individuals at our peril. It is doubtful the global financial banking crisis of 2008 would have happened if we had listened to the deep-thinking, risk-adverse introverts. Believe it or not, extroversion is not the superior personality type, nor should it be heralded as such by our education system.
Our daughter has been told since the age of four to ‘speak up’, ‘participate more’, ‘engage in school discussions’, ‘be more confident’, ‘be less shy’. Rather than appreciate and respect her introversion, she has encountered relentless pressure to conform to extrovert ways. Convinced that ‘doing things you don’t like’ is part and parcel of life. A rite of passage.
Why do we do that? Why do we force these dogmatic beliefs on our children? Why do we condone suffering and insist that it is a necessary evil? Is it not enough to accept that some children gain their energy from within, and others gain it from external interaction? Isn’t it this very difference that makes the world a more exciting place to live? Why are we so hell-bent on making all our children exactly the same? Why do we aspire for them to be another brick in the wall? What do we hope to achieve from painfully changing someone into something they are not? Where do we even get off sacrificing their happiness and uniqueness? Just because conformism is the well-trodden track.
It is not essential for every child to be shunted through the same curriculum, regardless of ability, personality type or aspiration. And it is certainly not okay to do that at the expense of their mental health and long-term wellbeing.
Whatever happened to teaching ‘the whole child’? Since when did all-important tests, league tables and our obsession with statistics become more important than the individual being? When did we all agree to prioritise academic excellence over happiness and emotional wellbeing? And where do we even begin to justify that decision?
Is it any surprise, given the deafening backdrop of the Pied Piper’s tune, that the rate of depression and anxiety amongst teenagers has increased by 70 percent over the past 25 years in the UK? Or that the number of children and young people turning up in A&E with a psychiatric condition has more than doubled since 2009?
Are we really content to blame that increase entirely on social media and the amount of time young people spend in front of screens? Are we going to ignore the relentless pressures of excessive testing and exam expectations?
I’m sure if the national media turned their cameras away from the euphoric scenes of jubilation on GCSE/A-Level results days, they would not need to look too far to find thousands of distressed young people collapsed in their parent’s arms, wailing from the depths of their souls, terrified that their world has just come to an end. Feeling failures at just 16.
Is it any surprise that there is a rise in young children diagnosed with ADHD? Are video games at home really the cause of impulsivity, hyperactivity and inattention in the classroom too?
Or is it time to examine our expectations of ‘appropriate behaviour’ in the school environment for children of a certain age? Is it time to stop listening to the propaganda and get real?
I am reminded of a poem from ‘The Wild Child’ by Jeanne Willis;
They caught all the wild children and put them in zoos,
They made them do sums and wear sensible shoes,
They put them to bed at the wrong time of day,
And made them sit still when they wanted to play.
They scrubbed them with soap and made them eat peas,
They made them behave and say pardon and please.
They took all their wisdom and wildness away,
That’s why there are none in the forests today.
Social media has become a convenient distraction from the pressure we place on young children to conform, out-perform and ‘succeed’ in a mass-education, mass-controlled environment created to produce compliant adults ready for a life of repetitive toil timed by a clock.
When spirited, creative, strong-willed, non-academic children rebel against this disciplined regimentation of seating, grouping, grading and marking – when they rebel against the bell, the rules, the rote-style testing of inane facts, the proverbial zoo – we look to apply some form of critical label. Or worse still, look for a medical diagnosis. Something that will alienate them further.
Our daughter has been assigned various labels throughout her childhood. Some more wounding than others. Her self-esteem has not been damaged by Facebook, Instagram or the world-wide-web – as much as we would like to point an accusatory finger – it’s been destroyed by the constant judgement and comparisons made between her and her peers. By us – THE ADULTS in her life. From loved-ones to educators. From parents to strangers. Everyone who has used her as a benchmark to compare themselves or others. It’s been caused by a distinct lack of individualisation and respect for difference. The dehumanisation of her very being.
We have watched our daughter’s light-hearted free spirit perish over the period of her school life. She had a brief hiatus of happiness when we travelled Europe and Nicaragua for 18 months, but since our return, her love of learning has been snubbed out completely. Once loved subjects are now abhorred. Visibly she is a nervous wreck. She worries incessantly about GCSEs – about letting teachers down, about failing, about being punished, about being praised. Making it through each day leaves her mentally and physically exhausted. There is no energy in reserve for homework, so the vicious cycle of anxiety continues. She has nothing left – but her love for us and her passion for writing compels her to put on that starchy uniform each day and prepare for another battle. Her stamina is waning. Her trust has gone. She’s hanging in there by a thread.
In addition to her introversion, our daughter has severe Dyscalculia – a genetic brain abnormality that means she cannot retain any mathematical or numerical principle. At 14, she is still unable to tell the time, or understand money – despite over 10 years of schooling and hundreds of hours of one-to-one support. The square root of three is enigmatic to a girl who cannot decipher simple number bonds. Yet, each day, her ability (or lack of) is overlooked in favour of a statistic.
A statistic that refuses to acknowledge her name. A statistic that is worth more to this government than her health. A statistic that has no regard for her individual needs. A demeaning, selfish statistic that sighs in despair knowing she will cost them a percentage point in the league table. The disappointment is palpable, and she feels it in every glare, scoff, groan and moan.
Ultimately that elusive ‘C’ note will evade her. Prohibit her future (if we let it). Until then, the Pied Piper will keep playing the unrelenting tones of quadratic equations, knowing it’s not right or fair. A fruitless, futile mantra. The curriculum waits for no-one. It’s a ‘C’ note or nothing.
If the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result; then our daughter has lived in an asylum for over 10 years. She has been shoe-horned through a one-size-fits-all maths programme, despite her maths learning disability, and at the expense of her dignity and confidence. Countless, well-meaning, determined, tenacious and patient professionals have lined up, taking in turns to force our square peg into a round hole. Hurting her in the process. Believing. She. Will. Fit. Eventually. It’s just a matter of effort.
But alas, she doesn’t fit.
So, they forge on, with their morals and ethics safely tucked away in their back pockets and ignore that she doesn’t fit. They throw more complex equations at her with a pitying smile. Give her some blue tac to calm her nerves. Our daughter will sit a Maths GCSE anyway. The preposterousness of it will be ignored. The statistic she represents has more value. That, she is able to calculate.
And when she fails, they’ll force her to re-take it. They’ll tell her she won’t be able to study her chosen creative writing course without it. They’ll tell her to change her aspirations because they are unachievable without the Pied Piper’s required maths attainment. They’ll tell her again, that only 0.1% of the population becomes a published author. That it is foolhardy to aspire to J.K Rowling’s standing without a maths qualification. That the square root of three is far more important to her future success. That she cannot make it to the promise land. The Pied Piper will make sure of that.
Our daughter, who is so smart she has us all figured out;
Our emotionally intelligent, sensitive, kind and caring girl who loves animals;
Our steely little-principled activist who loves to debate life’s big questions;
Our quiet little introvert with a sharp wit and inquisitive mind;
Our gifted and extraordinarily talented writer and artist…
Believes she is worthless.
That nobody will give her a chance. That’s she’s doomed to a life of misery because she can’t keep pace with her peers.
So, we tell her, she is a symphony all on her own. That someone will see what we see. That those who judge are not worthy. That happiness is the true measure of success. That the lunacy of this situation will end. That someone will make a stand soon. For her, and all the others like her.
We wait for the Rosa Parks of Education. The Lilly Ledbetter’s of this world. The incredible ordinary people who stand up for what is right. We wait for the teachers and the unions to say, ‘No more’. We wait for them to take back the power and force the government to listen – not leave in droves. Not turn their back on the children or the career they once worked so hard for. We wait for them to stand and fight for what is right.
10,000 teachers left the profession between 2010 and 2015. 10,000 teachers thought it would send a clear message to the government – but nothing has changed. Pig-headed dogmatists have no ears. Control is the only thing they understand.
We do not blame the educators. The people working 60+ hours a week to satisfy this crazy administration. We see their struggle. We are familiar with that look of despair. We hear the battle between words spoken and feelings borne. Bowing to submission is not a sign of mutual consensus or deep respect. They have mouths to feed too. That, we understand. But every time another teacher looks into our eyes and whispers ‘off the record’ that they abhor the testing culture, yet feel powerless to stop it; we feel heartbroken and dejected. Because right at that moment, in doing nothing, we all become complicit. We become part of the problem.
It is time to say ‘No’ to ‘Academic Excellence’ – a trendy term invented to describe the process of prepping and prompting young people to recall throwaway facts for tests that produce grades. It’s time to drag the definition of education into the 21st century and prepare our children for a creative modern world whereby individual strengths and talents are prioritised over a dictatorial national curriculum.
Otherwise, the only sound we will hear is the creaking of our mental health waiting lists.
Academic excellence comes at a price few can afford.
A price we are no longer willing to pay. Our complicity stops here.
For far too long we have allowed fear to overrule our hearts. We have been too scared to take action, knowing that a wrong decision could kill our daughter’s dreams. We have been institutionalised in our thinking and bowed to the pressure of fear-ridden critics who cry ‘she won’t survive without GCSE’s or social interaction’. We watched her wane and slip into survival mode. We were weak when we should have been strong.
We stood still.
Until I had a dream…
In my dream, I was walking down the street with my husband when we came across two tigers lying in the road. A lady walked towards us, passing the tigers nonchalantly.
‘Don’t worry,’ she said, ‘They are tame. They belong to the nearby park’.
Tensely we walked towards them, trying not to disturb them. As I passed, one tiger opened its eyes, stood up and sauntered towards me. Frozen to the spot with fear, I stayed completely motionless. After studying me up and down for what seemed like a lifetime, it suddenly grabbed my wrist and sat down. It did not clamp down too hard nor attempt to bite. It just sat with my wrist in its mouth. My husband looked on in utter dismay. Neither of us moved an inch. Afraid that the slightest movement would result, at best with the loss of an arm, or at worst, my death by mauling.
For what appeared like the entire night long, I stayed stock-still in one spot. To one side, the road was safe. To the other, another tiger lay watching. In standing motionless, I was semi-safe. But I knew I had to move at some point. I could not stay still forever. I looked over to my husband and he mouthed, ‘No-one can save you but you.’
Over breakfast, I relayed my horrible dream to our daughter. She gave a wry smile and compared the scenario to our current situation. The tiger, with my arm in its mouth, was my daughter’s school. It was not intentionally causing harm, but it had us firmly in its grasp. The second tiger (the observer) was the one we feared the most as he resembled the harm we could do if we made a wrong decision. The empty road resembled the safe passage to a new destination, where everything would be okay. The duration of the dream, she mused, undoubtedly related to the length of time we have delayed making a decision.
It was a sobering breakfast.
But it galvanised us. We felt more certain and awake than ever before. Surviving is not enough. It is a feeble bar to set for such a beautiful child. She deserves to be given a chance. To focus on her strengths. To master her talents. To wake up each day without fear. To nurture her natural desire to learn. To take back control and autonomy. To find her place in this world. To embrace her brilliance and originality. To indulge, without compromise, in her passion. To break the mould. To step outside, breathe and LIVE! To Interact with the world around her.
So, today, we have finally drafted our de-registration letter. It is years overdue. We have freed ourselves from the tiger’s grasp and are prepared to take the risk. Our daughter will leave school before Christmas.
This has been the hardest and bravest decision we have ever made. Selling all our worldly belongings and travelling halfway across the world pales into insignificance. The ‘what if’ demons overpowered us on a whole new level. Stopped us from seeing through the fear. We let our gorgeous girl down. And we apologise.
As of this moment, we turn our backs on mainstream education and the exam culture. We stick two fingers up to the Pied Piper and wish her followers well.
We hope the land of opportunity is as abundant as promised.
But this talented young star is staying with us.