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 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.

Laissez Faire (Lazy) Parenting: 2013 365 Challenge #208

Feeding the Goats

Feeding the Goats

Today was a victory for laissez faire (or what in our house is basically lazy) parenting.

I’ve worried for a long time that we don’t take our children to enough (any) classes. Other four-year-old girls and nearly-three-year-old boys go to dance class, swimming, football, yoga bugs, tumble tots (like gymnastics for preschoolers) or any number of other activities. We go to the farm and feed the goats.

I did a few classes – swimming, music, tumble tots – with my daughter, before my son was born (so basically until she was 19 months old!). Once he came along that stopped: he was not a child who liked being in his pram and I couldn’t help a 2-year-old around apparatus with a baby strapped to my chest (some mothers did and I salute them!).

I did (and still do occasionally) take them to a drop-in session at the local gymnastics club and teach my daughter to walk along the beam and hang from the bars – all those years of gymnastics as a child should count for something – although I can’t actually do more than fall off any more.

But, Mummy, I don't like peas!

But, Mummy, I don’t like peas!

And, for a while, we paid £20 every Sunday for each child to have a half-hour swim class in a gorgeous 35C pool at an amazing place called Calm-a-Baby. We loved going, the staff felt like family, and our kids loved it. Well, to begin with anyway. Certainly they loved the idea of it.

But, by the time we’d added coffee and a bacon sarnie (because the classes were at 9am and 11am on a Sunday and the pool had an amazing coffee shop with leather sofas, the Sunday papers and a soft play area) we were spending £150 a month for them to cry for thirty minutes because they didn’t want to put their heads under the water.

So we stopped swimming and didn’t bother with anything else. In the winter we take the kids to the local swimming pool (£8 plus the cost of a Costa afterwards when it’s warm enough to walk the short distance between the two). In the summer we use my mum’s 7m pool in her back garden. No expensive lessons, no rushing to get to classes or dealing with unhappy kids because they hate going under water.

Still, I did despair. Looking at my daughter’s baby group (thankfully, as a premature baby, my son never met his baby group and so I have no basis for comparison), we are way behind. My daughter can’t ride a bike without stabilisers, she can’t count to 100 or write every letter in the alphabet, or read. She still doesn’t eat vegetables and her idea of ballet is to pirouette in her spiderman outfit.

Whereas my son won't eat anything but peas and carrots!

Whereas my son won’t eat anything but peas and carrots!

But this week, this week it’s all been vindicated. Because this week my daughter taught herself to swim.

From not wanting to get her face wet only a few weeks ago, she now can swim a width (only about 3m, but still a width!) unaided – no float jacket, arm bands or rubber ring. Nothing. Just sheer determination and a love of praise.

And all because splashing around in a pool with Mummy, Daddy, Grandma and Grandpa twice or three times a week (particularly through the heatwave) is fun. We clap and cheer, and the more we clap and cheer the harder she tries and the better she gets.

Not wanting to be left out, my son swam for the first time today. Being not-quite-three, he swam with his head bobbing beneath the surface (apparently they haven’t got big enough lungs to be buoyant at his age) but still, he was swimming.

Underwater photoshoot at Calm-a-Baby

Underwater photoshoot at Calm-a-Baby

Much of the groundwork was done way-back-when at Calm-a-baby – as much for our confidence in the water as theirs – and for that I am grateful. But just as much came from lazy parenting. Sitting back and letting them learn at their own pace.

My sister moved to America a few years ago, partly to put her children in a school called Sudbury Valley which is all about letting children teach themselves. I don’t know enough about it to write here (though I should, as my sister has explained it often enough!) and I admit, pre-kids, I thought the whole idea was hokum.

But now? Now I get it. Now I see why it was worth a move state-side. With the right resources and the right space, with room to grow and some adult guidance, kids can do amazing things. I must get my sister to write a guest post. After the discussion on education, that’s bound to throw one in the mix!

For now, I will trust that my children will learn to read, write, ride a bike, play the piano, do a cartwheel, all in their own time and at their own pace. We just need to be there, cheering them on.


Below is the next installment in my novel Two-Hundred Steps Home: written in daily posts since 1st January as part of my 2013 365 Challenge. Read about the challenge here.You can catch up by downloading the free ebook volumes on the right hand side of the blog: 


Cold sand pushed through Claire’s toes, waking her senses in a way Starbucks never had. Cool morning air played with her hair and brushed her skin, and the scent of the sea fizzed in her brain. Shoulders slumped with the weight of carrying her heavy head, Claire placed one foot in front of the other and tried not to think. It was impossible. Like the proverbial pink elephant, the more she attempted to still the crashing waves of thought in her mind, the higher they rose.

To her left the bay lay flat as a mill pond, as if trying to show by example what still waters might look like. The surface reflected the translucent blue of the sky and all was calm.

Turning away from the mockery, Claire made her way to the steps by the public slip, and paused to pull her shoes back on. It’s no good, it has to be coffee.

She wondered if anywhere would be open this early in the morning on a weekday in May. Walking through the silent streets, Claire’s head pushed heavier against her shoulders, until she felt she might have to prop it up with her hands. It reminded her of a tiny baby, whose giant head – too large for the scrawny body – bobbed and swayed like a ball on a piece of elastic.

The thought led her by increments to an image of Kim telling her about her baby and on, by more awful pictures, to the moment when Michael opened his stupid mouth and broke apart a twenty-year friendship.

Claire’s feet led her onwards, following an unheard call. A faint scent of bacon wafted on the sea breeze and she realised her feet were more reliable than her brain. They led her to a small café, barely a room with three tables and a breakfast bar at the window. Every table was full of men, elbows out, tucking into a steaming plate of pork and grease. The smell twisted Claire’s stomach and reminded her of the lack of dinner.

Conscious of eyes watching, Claire walked head high to the counter and stopped.

“What’ll it be, love?”

A man in a blue and white striped apron met her gaze. His face seemed friendly although he didn’t smile. She hesitated, then blurted out, “Full English, all the trimmings, and the strongest coffee you have.”

Her words raised the corners of his mouth, and he nodded. “Heavy night?” There was understanding in his voice.

“Something like that,” Claire mumbled, reaching into her bag for her purse. It wasn’t there. Her heart thudded and she searched again, then remembered that she had tucked it into her rucksack for safe-keeping before wandering along the beach. Being mugged had left her cautious.

“Crap. Sorry, scrap that, I’ve left my purse at the hostel.”

“You’re staying at the YHA?”

Claire nodded.

“No worries, you can pay me later. The manager’s a friend of mine. Besides, you look like you’ll be more trouble if I don’t feed you. You’re greener than seaweed.”

The man’s words made Claire realise how wobbly she felt. A combination of insomnia and lack of food had left as weak as a tangle of bladderwrack. If she was the same colour, that was no surprise.

“Thank you.” Claire tried to smile but the nerves in her face wouldn’t obey. Settling for a nod, she made her way back to the window and climbed onto a stool.

Staring out the window, it felt like looking through a tunnel. Her eyes were open but her vision felt reduced to a tiny point surrounded by sleep. Fog descended in her skull.

I wonder if this is what it feels like to die? This diminishing of senses; this muffling of sight and sound and thought? For a brief moment Claire thought it might be quite nice to die. No more decisions, no more wrong choices, no more guilt.

“Here you go, love, get your chops round that. You’ll feel right as rain in no time.”

The man in the stripy apron plonked a plate and a thick white mug of steaming coffee in front of her. Her stomach heaved at the smell, and she thought she might be sick.

Taking a piece of white toast, dripping with butter, Claire nibbled on the edges and waited to see what happened.

Like a tiny crack breaking open the dam, Claire realised she was starving. Grasping knife and fork, she attacked the breakfast with gusto and didn’t stop until the plate was clean, even eating the fried bread and black pudding, items that would normally be pushed carefully to one side. Washing it down with coffee, Claire wrapped both hands around the warm mug and sighed.

A cloud covered the sun and, in the sudden darkness, Claire saw her reflection in the shop window. A jolt of shock ran through her chest and into her over-full tummy.

When did I get so thin? With exploring fingers, she traced the lines of her cheekbones, jutting out beneath deep-set eyes. She hadn’t looked in a mirror for days, not properly. Only the tiny mirror in her make-up case, on the morning of the interview, to apply mascara.

All those years of stupid diets to keep up with the waifs at work, and all I needed to do was lose my best friend, quit my job and forget how to sleep. Simple, really.

Sipping at the coffee, she realised the breakfast was the first proper meal she’d had since Kim’s wedding. Even at Ruth’s she’d been more concerned with ensuring that Ruth and Sky ate than worrying about her own consumption.

What am I going to do?

Conor’s words the night before slipped through the fog. They rattled her. His passion left her with an urge to run. His comment, that he would counter offer rather than let her leave, sounded slightly psychotic.

He doesn’t even know me. She couldn’t imagine Carl thinking that way. He had counter-offered, but only because he didn’t want to lose clients, not because he didn’t want to lose her. It felt like it had when she realised Michael was keeping tabs on her though her Tweets and blog posts.

Mind you, that paid off. Goodness only knows how long I would have been stuck in that lane if he hadn’t called the police.

Michael. Kim. Conor. Carl. Their faces, their voices, their demands and concerns, crowded round Claire like circus clowns, freaky and frightening. She felt like she might burst. She wanted to tell them all to get lost; to run and keep running.

Scribbling her name and number on a napkin, Claire left it with the man behind the counter, with assurances that she would pay later in the day. Then she hurried from the café, her need for space and silence overwhelming.