Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ready for School: Who Says? A Contribution to a School Readiness[i] Conference

Please note: In this presentation, I am concentrating upon one specific aspect of the question of “school readiness”, which I feel is frequently either neglected or simply taken for granted. The preparatory materials for this conference ably & comprehensively provide medical, salutogenic, psychological & developmental perspectives founded in spiritual science & others will be expanding on these. Here I wish to introduce something of a reality check by restricting myself to asking about background conditions & cultural assumptions.
The following is a two-point key to this:
  • We need to hold a much clearer recognition as Waldorf educators that claiming research “proves” a particular view of any question has little purchase in public discourse. (Researchers dislike the idea too; they never aim to put themselves out of business). It may be different elsewhere, but educational research in the UK has very little influence on practice nationally &, on the whole, even less on policy-makers. News media editors like the occasional piece of “sensational” research, but generally such items are buried within days of appearing
  • A question such as that of “school readiness” resonates into daily lives & into the wills of individuals where it meets a number of factors that are rarely stated & are often not even “known”, such as –
    • social & political norms & implicit values
    • life conditions  
    • “public mood”
    • family history

It would need a paper far more extensive than this summary to deal adequately with exact nature of each of these. Here I shall simply try to set out a few issues touching on the question of norms & life conditions & suggest ways in which they might be important if we are to contribute to improving childhood for all our children.


Assumptions about statutory school age tend to be along the lines that governments drive the trend to introduce children into the school system at an ever earlier age, Strictly speaking this is not so. A review of World Bank data on international school starting ages reveals that "legal school age" has rarely shifted in the course of two decades: Armenia & Brazil, for example, stand alone in having brought school age down a year, in both these, from 7 to 6. Starting ages are remarkably stable across all countries. But that reflects the way legislation & rights determine this aspect of children's lives. Something else is at work when we note the pressure to prescribe formal education for children at ever younger ages. It is important to recognise this when considering how best to respond to the "shoolification" trend.
If early schooling is not an explicit policy indicated by changing legislation, where does the implicit drive towards it come from? I suggest that this is a question whose constituent parts are complex & multi-levelled. If Waldorf educators are to adequately explain their view in modern terms, & certainly if they are to attempt to influence policy, understanding of the precise nature of the question is crucial. My view here is that the crux of the issue is predominantly “cultural” rather than one of political programmes or legality. If as Mr Bumble[ii] declares, “The law is a ass, a ass, sir, a ass!” the animal’s fodder is public opinion & public assumptions. 
It is rare for people to do other than seek the best possible upbringing for their children. But “doing the best for one’s child” depends upon context. In a militaristic State a near-brutal toughening up of young children may serve as response to doing one’s best for the next generation no less than the lenient spoiling that may have seemed normal during the “let it all hang out” days of southern California. Common practice among the wealthy middle & upper classes during much of the nineteenth century all but excluded children from the company of their parents, placing them in the hands of nannies, governesses, tutors & boarding schools. Before the advent of compulsory schooling, working class children either joined their parents at their place of work, or, before the age at which they could be economically useful, were looked after by local women, usually elderly & unmarried or widowed, often in what were known as “baby farms”. The plot of Gilbert & Sullivan’s operetta, HMS Pinafore, turns on the fact that, one of the characters, “Buttercup”, had mixed up the identities of two infants in her care. As she has to admit with great embarrassment:       
A-many years ago,
When I was young & charming,
As some of you may know
I practiced baby farming[iii]
In the world of reality, unfortunately, in most industrial cities during the first phase of industrialisation, baby-farms in terraced slums consisted of every available space crammed with cots in which infants might be penned throughout the working day. At a later period, it remains unsurprising that Rudolf Steiner found a coincidence of interest & intention between the educational method he was creating & the work of Margaret MacMillan, whose east London nurseries provided care, & hot baths, for pre-school children from families with few options as to how to look after them. That may seem far away from modern conditions, but in many ways contemporary deprivation – we could call it developmental deficit – is as profound as that of less materially privileged ages.   
There has, of course, never been an ideal time for children. Each age brings its own typical problems, misconceptions & developmental challenges. Nonetheless, & in spite of a modern belief that adults should spend “quality time” with their children (an ideal premised on achieving a near mythical quality: “work-life balance”) the friction point between children growing into the world & adults having to maintain their life in that world remains acute for the vast majority of families. Not surprisingly then educational settings, including Anthroposophical institutions (perhaps a little late), now have to take into account the need to care for ever younger children. This is relatively recent, even ten years ago in my experience, most early years’ practitioners & their colleagues would have been firm in their view that young children under three “belong at home”. In the UK the length of the school day in our younger classes can also be a problem area for busy parents. As one committed Waldorf parent put it, “If the school wants us to continue paying fees it had better arrange things better so that we can earn the money to pay them!” Perhaps we should not forget that children being looked after at home (which was, during the first half of the last century, one of the tokens of being financially “comfortable”), came at a cost paid in the frustration & unfulfilled potential of millions of women. Ideal conditions do not exist at any time. If the duty of the economic life is to make resources available to the cultural- spiritual sphere, schools also have to be responsive to needs of parents & a progressive education takes the conditions for what they are & then creates the best possible arrangements for children to learn & flourish. I am unconvinced that our schools always arrange matters accordingly.    
Our concern here is for the transition between early years’ setting & school proper. My question to this is, “what assumptions are being made?” Assumptions play a powerful role in decisions about education & we all make them. Their power derives from the factors listed at the introduction of this paper social & political norms & implicit values (i.e. life conditions, “public mood” & family history) & from the fact that in order to act at all, some things must be taken for granted. But the apparent nature of those certainties does not imply that they are necessarily wrong or suspect. Only when our assumptions detach from the general movement of a culture do we tend to recognise their presence & examine them: current concerns about the nature of discriminatory language (& behaviour) is an example of a process of detachment of this kind. Speaking from a British point-of-view, the Waldorf assumption, formal education should start with the child’s second dentition, can find itself flattened against the stone-wall of national & cultural assumptions such as:
·         The earlier a child “starts to learn” the better (which itself contains the assumption that children only really  learn anything useful in school)
·         School is about “learning lessons” – formal education – break times are for play, but these should be relatively short & supervised by adults
·         Since five is the legal age for full-time education, getting into school before that must be a good thing
·         The English language & its writing system is complex & that means starting to learn reading early ensures the best potential outcomes for literacy[iv]
·         The world is highly competitive: children growing up now will be at a huge disadvantage unless they can master skills & gain knowledge in a way that puts them ahead of others, thus helping the UK to gain commercial advantages over its rivals 
·         Children are “safer” in school than elsewhere
·         School is where children make friends & learn to be sociable

The general need for both parents to go out to work, the scattered nature of modern families, with little support from the extended family alongside the way the power of the state interacts with individual liberties & rights works as glue for such assumptions. In England we have witnessed a continual tinkering with what is essentially a curriculum (referred to as “the framework”) for children under the age of five, which tends to increase the tendency to imagine that children must be missing out if they are not making recordable steps towards formal academic  skills[v]. While I do not intend to suggest that dialogue is useless in these circumstances, or that evidence of other points of view has no effect, there are many who would agree with the fundamental principle of a latter start to formal education, I think that we need to reflect on such convictions & accept that “what’s best for the child” can result in conclusions that are unpalatable to Waldorf educators.

For example, many colleagues use a phrase like “school readiness” as a definition of how the child is, perhaps based on their professional view of the child, a view that may or may not be supported by a school doctor, but with the essential assumption that school readiness is a condition of the individual child. Occasionally, a parent may even respond to suggestion that child is “not quite ready” with, “So what’s wrong with him[vi]?” (Not a good basis for ongoing dialogue). Moreover, the concept of school readiness elsewhere is much richer than this, including the readiness of the school (& teacher) for the child, & the extent of the support from family & community[vii] (see, e.g. Looked at from this perspective, notions such as that readiness can be assessed easily, or that readiness is mainly a function of time, or that children assessed as “not ready” do not belong in the classroom, need rethinking. To listen to the way some teachers speak about whether a child is ready to enter Class 1, you might be excused for imagining the Class 1 experience as a dubious, even mildly poisonous substance that should only be administered to children strong enough to withstand its noxious potential. Something that may have some basis in truth, but which ultimately underlines the responsibility of the teacher.    

Some years ago, there was discussion among some colleagues in Britain about changes to school law in Norway. The report was to the effect that, for reasons not entirely clear, school regulations had been altered & as a result, in Norway, Class 1 was now called Class 2, while Class 1 age children would in reality be their last year of kindergarten. Many British colleagues were outraged by this “attack on the freedom” of fellow Waldorf educators in Scandinavia. No-one in that conversation seemed to recognise the insignificance of the change. We should call to mind that Rudolf Steiner was prepared to accept the necessity of State exams in Class 3 & Class 6 provided the school was left free to follow its own pedagogical route to those examinations. If children are less school ready than they were, & there does appear to be evidence of that, & if individual variation in development is more marked, should we not be considering transforming the nature of the divide between Kindergarten & Class 1? It is often forgotten that Steiner saw the three-seven-year model of development as inherently therapeutic in a general sense, i.e. it was a means of putting children in touch with the human developmental archetype not a simple pattern into which children should somehow fit (or be fitted!). It is possible that the essential principles of Waldorf education are more often compromised in strict adherence to the letters, or numbers of Steiner’s indications than by the ill to adapt to the real & present needs of children & their families.   

Education takes place in a context & educators should be alert to this cultural background. I must make it plain that I am not questioning the fundamentals of Waldorf practice here, but I am saying that if a school sees disparity between its provision & the readiness of children in their seventh year, if the “requirements” for Class 1 are considered too great, the first question should be how the school might adapt itself to the needs of the children rather than to immediately prescribing an extra year in kindergarten. At a conference organised by the SWSF for kindergarten & Class Teacher colleagues, one of the speakers, a Class Teacher & school founder, strongly put the view I am suggesting here, “Don’t worry so much about whether the child is ready or not, if they are in their seventh year, send them up & we must find the right way to work with them”. The fact that for many this was a so striking a statement demonstrates that the opposite tends to be the norm.

The challenges for children during the twenty-first century look to be more subtle & less overt than those of previous times. This is not the place to go into the detail about the numerous ways in which what is needful in first phase of childhood is being pulled from under the first tottering steps of infants. To name a few of the symptoms, we could list: increasing movement problems (e.g. retained infantile reflexes), language delay, behavioural issues & such matters as childhood obesity & precocious sexuality. I would suggest that each of these, although quite different, is more-or-less an intensification of that tendency to psychological frailty & declining vigour that can be found everywhere. I think any teacher with experience over more than a single decade would recognise that brittleness of soul that even our most healthy children can sometimes manifest when faced with the normal difficulties of growing-up. If we are to respond to the challenge all this places before us, we should think carefully about how our schools respond to the general culture in which they are placed &, I suggest, pay more heed to the way children are met in their learning & development wherever they are in the school. 

To that end, I conclude with a short-list of pointers for further work, research or reflection:
·         In a UK context, schools have to be very alert to working in an education system in which full-time education at age 5 is mandatory (“in school or otherwise”, is the phrase in the law that allows for home education). Because good Primary schools tend to be over-subscribed, our Kindergartens have to be very clear if there are any doubts about progression long before the child reaches age 6. The case of children with special educational needs is especially delicate because of this
·         What does the phrase, “holding back the child” convey & how does its meaning resonate in those using it? It seems to suggest something very different to Steiner’s call for the teachers to “awaken” themselves in order to (appropriately) “awaken the children”
·         Similarly, we might ask what “not starting academic work/literacy/numeracy until such & such a stage...” or even “avoiding over-taxing the child” might mean. An inspector, who was very sympathetic to Waldorf practice, described visiting a school when a teacher entered the office with a kindergarten child. The child noticed the words “First Aid” in large letter on a first aid box & asked what they said. The teacher responded by saying, “Never mind about that now” & hurried the child out of the room. The inspector felt this was an unfortunate & inappropriate response to the child’s natural curiosity. There may, of course, have been specific reasons for this teacher’s choice, but, as a general point, was the inspector or the teacher correct in their view of the situation?
·         Following from those examples, if what we do for the very young child prepares the child’s faculties, as I believe is the case, should we not be describing that preparation in positive terms & describing far more clearly how what the Kindergarten Teacher does helps to optimise learning potential? In this particular, Waldorf principles are a close fit with Vygotsky’s concept of a “zone of proximal development”. This is not to propose simply merging one into the other, but the Vygotskian formulation has several advantages: the “location” is “nearest to” rather than “precisely here” & it is described as being within a “zone”. Most importantly, to talk of an optimum period for the teaching of certain skills or knowledge avoids the impression that there is a belief involved that children cannot learn these earlier
·         I have also heard the phrase, “No explicit teaching takes place in kindergarten”, is this true? I don’t think it accords with what I observe. Just as Class Teachers often need  greater awareness of what is achieved in the early years, do Kindergarten Teachers need greater understanding (& better training perhaps) in such things as promoting sensory integration &, for example, phonological awareness? Guiding children in the moment using an implicit, imitative, method really calls for greater depth of feeling for such tings
·         Similarly, given that a Class Teacher may usually only have the opportunity to work directly on building the foundations for literacy & numeracy with a class at most three or four times in a career, do teacher education courses - & ongoing development workshops - provide sufficient practical strategies to do this?
·         Steiner intended that Anthroposophy would enrich & revive the general culture. That’s a huge ambition & there are some notable successes (varying from country to country). How can Waldorf schools play their part in this unless they continually strive to show their hospitality & active contribution towards the challenges of the common lives & concerns we share?
·         How do answer the -
Six Year Old Blues (?)

Mum sent me to the Steiner
And Kindie’s mostly nice,
We play outside all winter
And skid across the ice!

But now I’ve got a problem:
“I want to go to school!”
All my friends are going
And they say it’s really cool.

My teeth are just not wobbling,
I missed the Easter test,
I’ve even got a special game
To help me with the rest:
I lift my hand,
I tug my arm,
I try to reach my ear
I think my head is far too big;
I get so very near.

I met the nice class teacher,
She smiled & knew my name,
She even had a chuckle
When I showed her my ear game

I think she really likes me,
She said I was the best,
But she was sad as sad could be
I missed the Easter test.

I lift my hand,
I tug my arm,
I try to reach my ear;
I think my head is far too big:
Now I’ll have to wait ONE WHOLE YEAR!

Kevin Avison February 2013

[i] We will use the term “school readiness” throughout. So far as the UK is concerned, it is essential to look at the question in the round & with a view to the implications for a child throughout their school career. A narrower focus on “class 1 readiness” is in our view inadequate, often leading to greater problems for the child later & giving too much weight either to a short term decision in the hands of kindergarten &/or class teacher.
[ii] In Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
[iii]"Buttercup’s confessions” from HMS Pinafore, words by W.S.Gilbert
[iv] Although education Ministers & others have attached a great importance to improving standards of numeracy, literacy remains the key concern for most people. It is significant that, while usage of the word “literate”, meaning “to know one’s letters” derives from the 15 century, this implied the ability to read, but not necessarily to write (hence the convention of “making one’s mark” to witness a document. Usage of the word “literacy” as a quality is much more recent (first recorded in 1883), although use of “illiteracy”, usually as a pejorative, is recorded in the late 1600s      
[v] The SWSF in the UK – especially my colleague Janni Nicol, has been able to engage in an effective dialogue with policy-makers to exempt certain parts of these requirements for our kindergartens
[vi] I’ve used the gender specific “him”, largely because,  in my experience, boys are more likely than girls to be “not ready”
[vii] A “checklist” from a commercial educational website with advice for parents & schools is appended below (Appendix 1). This is a fair indicator of how the expectation of school precedes the evaluation, but it’s worth noting that most of the checklist is about helping the child to be ready

  1. Assessment.
    • There are several measures that let you as parents conduct an evaluation to make sure your child is ready to attend school. Listen to what and how your child speaks and look at how he/she  communicates to other children – this will help you judge whether your child is ready for attending school. Review the listed indicators and conduct a test to find out whether your child meets the requirements.
    • Feeling self-confident within a school learning environment.
    • Working independently and cooperatively within large and small groups.
    • Focusing on doing tasks, following prescriptions.
    • Working within time constraint.
    • Listening to a story in large and small groups.
    • Following two- or three-step oral directions.
    • Sharing ideas and knowledge within a group.
    • Caring for personal needs.
    • Caring for personal belongings.
    • Following school rules, respecting the property of others.
  2. Tips – Developing Your Child’s Independence.
    • To make sure your child is independent and ready for school, you can follow several tips listed below.
    • Let your child spend more time away from you or regular caregivers – then the child will gradually learn to do things without your help.
    • Talk over your child's day. By discussing how the child spends his/her day at school, you can learn more about the child’s troubles, and then suggest solutions.
    • Appoint a homework area in your house. In such a way you will show your child the importance of school work.
    • Make your child do some tasks for helping at home – this will be a part of future classroom routine. You can use worksheets to show the child how to better organize school-related tasks.
    • Teach your child to be responsible for personal care, such as dressing and personal hygiene.
    • Attend the school open day together with your child.
    • Take your child to the school playground and spend their time to make your child familiar with the school environment.
    • Show your child the shortest and safest route to school.
  3. Buying School Clothes.
    • Save money by planning your child’s wardrobe in advance by purchasing items on sale and shopping at discount and consignment stores.
    • Acquire only seasonally appropriate clothes.
    • Make sure your child has the right shoes for school, gym class and sports.
    • Acquire necessary uniforms or special clothing your child may need for phys education and athletics.
    • Be sure all of your child’s new clothes and shoes meet the school dress code.
    • Be sure your child’s stock of underwear and socks is renewed and updated.
  4. Buying School Supplies.
    • Attend a school supplies shop and ask for a kit – usually such shops provide a set of school supplies.
    • Create a school supplies list. You can use a program to make such a list. Include the following items in your school supplies list:
      • Spiral notebooks and exercise books.
      • Books required for education.
      • Ballpoint pens, mark pens, colour pencils, crayons.
      • Ruler, eraser, glue stick, pencil case.
      • School backpack.
      • Lunchbox or a suitable container for lunch.

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