The Perfect School?

Sudbury Valley School

Sudbury Valley School

Almost as soon as my nephew was born, my sister began to speak about sending him to a particular school in America. A free school, a democratic school – run by the children for the children. A place where a child could ride their bike or play video games all day, everyday, if they chose.

I scoffed. My parents rolled their eyes. I’m an academic at heart, with straights As and a first class degree and a Masters (we won’t mention the B in A Level General Studies – after all it wasn’t a ‘real’ qualification – it was only about life and that’s not important to a student who wants to succeed.)

Over the years, my brave, courageous, determined sister never let go of her American dream. Her husband’s sister’s children went to the school and her desire grew. I never got it. Three years ago, after untold hours of effort, my sister and her family emigrated to America to live near my brother-in-law’s family, with a view to my nephew and now niece going to the school.

The school run for my sister

The school run for my sister

I still didn’t get it. School is about learning and classes and exams and school uniform and all that, and my children were going to love it. There were going to be reading and counting to a hundred by the time they were five, they were going to be top of the class. After all, I was, and that made me happy, didn’t it?

My daughter started school six months ago, and my confidence began to waver. School seemed so regimented, especially for these tiny four-year-olds looking so serious and adorable in their smart uniform. The school run was chaotic and emotional and full of stressed parents snapping and snarling (particularly me).

To begin with, my daughter loved it. As suspected, she thrived on learning and was reading and counting to a hundred by her fifth birthday. She loves the community of school, idolises her teacher, and adores singing, reading and PE. But, here’s the thing: after spending a whole year desperate to go to school, my bright, academic, sponge-like learning child doesn’t want to go anymore.

“Mummy why do we only do PE once a week, I love PE.”

“Mummy, I love singing, is it singing assembly today? Is it?”

“Mummy, we didn’t get to do reading today.”

Drumming with his sister (click for video)

Drumming with his sister (click for video)

Then, yesterday, I watched this video on the Sudbury Valley school my sister has set her heart on. And I cried. Oh my. I want that for my children. I want them to be able to play piano for three hours straight if they choose. I want the calm, majestic, green surroundings, the rocks and the lakes and the books and the teachers there to facilitate enthusiastic learning. I want my children, my artistic children who often spend hours playing in their band, to have that.

Who cares if they meet some government-decided tick box of success. I want them to know what makes them passionate by the time they’re fifteen, not fifty.

Already, in six months, I’ve seen my daughter lose her edge. Become less able to find things to do without direction, become more concerned about breaking rules than having fun. She gets some of that from me, but where did I get it from?

I read a post yesterday written by the talented and successful writer, Kim Bongiorno, who wondered if the fact that she didn’t finish college would affect her own children’s desire and ability to go to college. She wondered whether she was a good enough role model for them. This was my reply (before watching the Sudbury Valley video!)

“I think you are being a better role model by not having finished your college degree. I don’t think university is for everyone. I went to university because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. For people with vocations, like doctors or teachers, of course university is essential. However, if you’re not academic then it’s a way to run up huge debt and be no nearer to a job at the end. Certainly that’s true in the UK.

Fifteen years ago I graduated with a first class degree and it marginally improved my chances of getting a good job. Which I did. But I hated it and had a breakdown after three years. The next job was no better except I lasted five years before realising I don’t handle office stress well and I need to be creative.

And I AM academic, I loved studying. What about the people who don’t learn through lectures and essays? My sister struggled for four years to get a 2:2 in a language she hated, and graduated with massive debt, great pool playing skills and a love of Jack Daniels. Since then she’s started from scratch, building up her own businesses and finding what she loves and is good at.

In fifteen years time, when my daughter would graduate, I suspect a degree won’t be enough to compete. She’ll need a Masters, maybe a PhD. Years more of study and debt, for what? She wants to be a writer like her mummy, my son wants to be a racing driver (he’s three). I truly hope I’ll be strong enough to encourage them in those desires because happy is as important as well paid.

There is a great lecture I watched http://new.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity all about academic inflation and how university is really only good if you want to be a professor. I have long debates and worries about education and making sure it’s right for my children and this lecture consolidated some of them.

If your children want to go to college, the fact that circumstances outside your control prevented you completing your course shouldn’t stop them. And if they don’t want to go, you’ll be the best person to show them that – with hard work and determination – they can be a success without it.”

Daughter drumming - stuff she can't do at school

Daughter drumming – stuff she can’t do at school

This all sounds like I’m upping sticks and moving my family to Boston, doesn’t it? Oh I wish. But I don’t want to live in America, not even for an amazing school. For all my angst and depression, I’ve travelled the world and found myself home. But it does mean I can now say,

“Sister, you are the bravest, smartest, strongest, kick-ass person I know, and well done. Sorry I didn’t always understand.”

And I can keep looking for a better school for my children, and give them space at home to be children. To be themselves and to be happy with that. It’s taken me nearly four decades to achieve it, and I’m only partly there. In the meantime, I hope more schools look to the Sudbury Valley model and at least take some parts of it away. Watch the video and tell me you aren’t just a teeny bit impressed.