Reinventing Education: The Mentor and the Family

Clean Slate

Clean Slate now has a blog all of its own! No more education posts will appear on Secrets of the Sandpit. Please click here to read and comment on this post and catch up on my latest thoughts on reinventing education.

Welcome back to Clean Slate, my initiative to scrap school and start again from scratch.

The Story so far

In Part 1, we looked at motivation as the key factor in learning.

In Part 2, I suggested school should be structured to allow pupils to explore and pursue their interests.

In Part 3, I imagined the Sandpit School and sketched an example ‘class room’/session.

And so we arrive at Part 4, which you see before you. I started writing about the role of the teacher, but found there were so many other sub-topics lurking that I would need to split this into several posts. Today is about the teacher as mentor, and about providing children with a safe base at school. I realise that a lot of my ideas on learning so far have been very individual and that they might result in a child seeing different people at each lesson he goes to on a given day, which wouldn’t provide much in the way of continuity. So here is my suggestion.

A Surrogate Family

At my hypothetical Sandpit School, children would start the day with half an hour in a ‘home’ group, with their mentor. They are encouraged to regard their group as a ‘family’, a ‘house’ or a ‘team’. Many children come from warm, loving families already – hopefully the home group will simply serve to help them recognise school as familiar and safe. For those children whose home lives are less than ideal, who don’t have a place where they feel unconditionally loved, the home group could become the one place in the world where there are people who will look out for you and support you, like in a family. And like in a family, the children in your group will be of all different ages and stages in the school. The older ones can help the younger ones if they are struggling – with school work, practicalities, or with life.

The teacher who acts as mentor for the group is responsible for the well-being of their charges in the school. The children will see their mentor every day, regardless of the subjects they choose to explore, and hopefully the mentor will become someone they trust enough to turn to with any issues at school or at home – a bit like a parent.

The Desired Outcome

The mentor is responsible for helping the home group to be a model of what family can and should be:

1. A place of acceptance
2. A safe place
3. A place you can come to for guidance and advice

Like in a family, not everyone will get on all the time, not everyone will be close friends with everyone, but the home group will stick together. If you are five years old and lost, a member of your home group will be a friendly face to help you back to your class. If you are getting bored of dinosaurs but don’t know where to start with discovering a new interest, your mentor knows you well enough to suggest you go to the Questions Lab to find out about fire, or you can talk to another student and ask them what they have done that was good.

Ultimately, if done right, the home group will help children (especially those who do not get this from their own parents and siblings) to leave school with a positive blue print for family-style relationships that they can implement in their own lives. Even if home for them was a place of terror and neglect, they will have this supportive group and supportive teacher to look back on to inspire them to create a better life for their own children.

How to make it happen

Everybody needs a place like this. It is human nature to seek out or create a group of people who are like family and stick with them through thick or thin.

This is why young people get involved in football teams, or school plays.

This is why teenagers end up in gangs.

They want to be a part of a group that cares, that protects its members, that shares a common goal and has in-jokes they can laugh at that nobody else understands. Us against the world.

The best families provide this for their children. If we give our children acceptance, safety and guidance, they will still look for their own groups and teams, but these groups won’t replace the family, merely supplement it.

So how do you get a group of children of various ages to become a team, a home, a family?

1. They need to have time together: besides half an hour at the start of each day, home groups could reconvene at the end of the day to chat about what they have done and get ready to go home. There could be an a time slot each week for home groups to meet together for longer. Time is the baseline, without time together it will never work.

Families go to the supermarket together and do the washing up.

Families go to the supermarket together and do the washing up.

2. They need to share a common goal and cooperate to achieve it: during sports days or other school-wide events the home groups will function as teams and compete against each other. This plays into the sports/football analogy. During their weekly slot, home groups could work on a big collaborative project that will be displayed to the school. It could be a play, or a craft project, or a big display or experiment. They could make a film together or write a magazine. This plays into the drama analogy. These kinds of big scale events and projects are the hot house in which group cohesion is cultivated. (I would advise against learning from the gang example, though…)

3. They need to share both special and every day moments: families have holidays together, they celebrate birthdays and Sunday lunches. They appear in photographs together, smiling and wearing silly hats. They share jokes and poke fun at each other. They play games and watch TV together. They hang out the laundry and mow the lawn. The home group can decide to have breakfast together in the mornings before sessions start. They bring cakes for birthdays and have parties to celebrate each other’s achievements. This is the glue that holds a family together.

What was your safe place as a child? How do you think school can help give children positive blueprints for family life? How can you encourage a supportive environment in a group of children of various ages? Help me improve my ideas!

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Into the Woods

The woods are just trees
The trees are just wood
I have no fear nor no one should

Today, I took advantage of the fact that my parents were around to go on a little trip into the local woods with the Boy. Opa came with us, but we left Oma at home to look after the Girl. She needed a sit down after hoovering my stairs and cleaning my bathroom.

I love the fact that we have a small wood just across the road. I hardly ever visit it, though. One reason is that the paths are inaccessible for buggies. This makes the wood all the more natural and charming, but it means I haven’t really ventured forth into it for the past three years. As soon as the Boy was old enough to be able to manage the walk with confidence, the Girl arrived. So today, Oma watched her as she tested various objects around the house for their usefulness as a walker, while Opa, the Boy and I set out on our forest adventure.

The Boy always wants to take things with him on outings. These were his objects of choice today:

Things you need for a walk in the woods: a doctor's case and a polar bear driving a car

Things you need for a walk in the woods: a doctor’s case and a polar bear driving a car

The reason you need two spare adults (one to mind the baby and one to come along) for a trip to our local forest became apparent to my Dad as soon as we got to the entrance.

“It’s not a very clean wood,” he said, surveying the bouquet of freshly trampled beer cans, discarded crisp wrappers, empty packets of biscuits and used condoms artfully displayed among the foliage.

Yes. We live in a run-down area and what happens in the forest when no one is looking I will leave up to your imagination. Suffice it to say that it is good not to go in alone, just in case. And not to go in after dark. Or stay too long. Before children, I once went running there with a friend and we encountered a police man. The forest was part of his beat, it seemed. He was strolling along, looking reassuring, and nodded a greeting as we jogged past.

“I’m not sure we could get the better of any attackers if there were three of them.” My Dad, always the academic, set about analysing the probabilities once I’d explained that he was our body guard.

“It’s okay,” I said, surveying a large branch lying across the path, “There are plenty of improvised weapons around.”

“Still… If there were three of them…”

“We wouldn’t need to beat them, we’d just need to stall them enough that we could run away.”

My Dad still looked doubtful, so I thought I’d impart some of my husband’s best self-defence wisdom: “Aim for the eyes. Everyone will naturally move to protect their eyes – then you run.”

“But wouldn’t they catch us? They’d be faster.” We were further into the wood by now. The debris had thinned a bit and the sun came out, lighting up the path ahead.

“Monkey! I see monkey inna tree,” the Boy exclaimed, entirely unphased and unaware of our rather morbid conversation.

“Wow, you can see a monkey?” I asked. “Shall we collect some different shaped leaves to go in your doctor’s case?”

“Yes. Love a different shapes,” he declared, pulling fistfuls of leaves off the nearest bush and stuffing them into the case.

“And scream. You could scream really loudly. But that’s not easy to do,” my Dad said, still studying our potential predicament from all angles.

We came to the edge of the wood, where you can stand on a raised bank and look out over the fields.

“Wow!” the Boy said. “Farm.”

“Somebody lit a fire here,” my Dad remarked, peering into the ditch. Burned branches and charred beer cans.

All in all, we decided it was wisest to take the Boy’s collection of leaves straight home to Oma, and headed back out of the forest. We took a bit more time wandering through the streets, letting the Boy stop and collect flowers.

“Need all-a colours of a rainbow,” he said. “Present for Oma.”

Leaves and colourful flowers for Oma

Leaves and colourful flowers for Oma. In a zip-lock bag.

Into the woods, and out of the woods
and home before dark.*

*Not my poetry. Song lyrics from Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods”.

Opa and Oma



To the Boy’s utter delight, Opa and Oma arrived this morning to stay for the weekend. They came over from Nininand [The Netherlands] by car on the ferry, bringing all sorts of delights with them, such as a book about Pinocchio and a Pinocchio puppet for the Boy, and an adorable little dress for The Girl. They made me very happy by bringing a crate full of my favourite Dutch food stuffs and setting about cleaning my house for me.

My parents were not sure they were ready to become grandparents. When my husband and I first mentioned the fact that we were considering starting a family soon, a look of panic crossed my mother’s face and she said: “As long as you don’t expect me to babysit!” Part of the panic was the introduction of a taboo subject at the dinner table (“one does not discuss procreation with anyone other than the parties directly involved in making the baby”), but I think she also felt a certain dread at the prospect of shifting up a generation.

This led me to reflect on what it means to be a grandparent. What is your role, how does your attitude to life shift? Obviously, I can’t comment from personal experience, but from observation a lot of it seems to be about supporting your children as they become parents. It is like you step back a little and work behind the scenes. My parents are used to living like people in the prime of their life: they are active, they travel, they get involved in new things, they take centre stage. Of course, everyone is the protagonist in their own lives, but the importance and the potential of children temporarily gives their parents the very special role of Shaper. For this time in our lives when our main job is to raise children to become well-rounded, happy people, we are shaping society, shaping the world and shaping the future through them. Grandparents are there in the wings. They pat us on the back when we come off stage left, convinced we did an appalling job. They hand us props and tools when we need them. They change the set between acts. And because they are old hands at the play themselves, they know the lines, they’ve done it before, they can cover for us occasionally, when it gets a bit too much.

The day I found out I was pregnant with my son, I was due to pick my mother up from the station. We were going to a spa to celebrate my birthday, so I thought it would be wise to just check. Just to be sure. I wasn’t expecting a positive result – we had been trying for 18 months and I had been diagnosed with poly-cystic ovaries, so the chance was slim – but I just quickly did a test five minutes before I was due to head out. I was pregnant. My husband and I were in shock. I raced out to see my mum, now about fifteen minutes late, and told her straight away.

The first thing she said was: “Oh you *must* move back to the Netherlands, so I can babysit!”

Now that the kids are here, my parents love being Opa and Oma.  They are experts at support from the wings:

* They dedicate themselves to learning how we like to do things with the kids and how best to take care of them so that they can slot into our household and contribute to its running. “Opa, she has to grab the cucumber herself. That is what her mother wants,” my Mum berates my Dad when he tries to stuff a morsel of food in The Girl’s mouth.

* They look out for handy gadgets that might make life easier, appearing on the doorstep with a miniature gazebo (brought over in their car all the way from the Netherlands) to provide shade for our paddling pool.

* They cook, they clean, they make dinner and buy treats. “You shouldn’t take this as criticism,” my Dad says, wearing my apron and wielding a sponge, “but shall I just quickly clean your fridge?”

* They don’t live down the road, which is sad, but we talk on Skype twice a week to keep the relationship going from afar. My son is over the moon when we go and visit them or they come here. When he was a lot smaller, my Dad mused: “Why do you think he likes us so much? What is it he sees in us?”

“He sees that you love him,” was my reply.

So here’s to you, Opa and Oma! Thank you for being so wonderful, and for being there-and-here for us!

opa en oma

Another poem about sleep

Midsummer Night’s Dream

The night is warm
you toss you turn
hair sweat sticky
sticky uppy
fists clenched
you fight with sleep

no not.
too hot.

you wrestle and weep
call to wake
need help
to turn not sit
lie down not stand
I lend a hand

eyes glued.
black mood.

on we roll we limp
till dawn breaks
birds wake
all forgotten
cheery you
start the day anew

gone night.

it feels wrong
but I go along
and start the day
with a reluctant song.

(c) Judith Kingston, 2013.

Prose for Thought

Reinventing education: The Sandpit School

Clean Slate now has a blog all of its own! No more education posts will appear on Secrets of the Sandpit. Please click here to read and comment on this post and catch up on my latest thoughts on reinventing education.

Welcome to part 3 of Clean Slate, my initiative to scrap school completely and start again from scratch. The debate is gaining momentum, so I have decided to write a bit more frequently.

Clean SlateCatch up

For those of you who missed the first two instalment (tsk, skiving, were you?), here is a brief recap of the conclusions I have come to so far:

In Let’s start at the very beginning we established that motivation is the key factor in learning, and that people (not just children) are motivated to learn by (1) what interests them; (2) what is necessary to achieve their goals and (3) what they need to know to survive. This led me to conclude that the curriculum in the New School should be determined by children’s interests and that we need to let go of our obsession with prescribing what children should learn, and when, and in what order.

In How to structure a school, I suggest that it is ‘interests’ that should also be the guiding principle for school structure. The first phase of education should focus on widening children’s horizons and helping them explore and learn about as wide a variety of topics as possible, in order to establish what they are interested in. The second phase should maintain this, but increasingly shift towards narrowing focus and specialising, guided by the child’s ambitions for the future.

In part 3 today, I will look at what a school building might look like, and what lessons would be like, if the guiding principle was exploration and widening horizons.

The Sandpit

Yep. You didn’t think I’d reinvent school without involving a sandpit, did you?

IMG_8250sReally, the concept I am borrowing for my school-design is more properly called sandbox, and it is a style of computer game design. A sandbox game, rather than leading the player along a story line he can’t deviate from, allows the user to explore the world of the game in any way and order he likes, creating his own story. A very good example of a sandbox game is called Neverwinter Nights: the game has a linear story that you can pursue if you wish. However, you are equally free to completely ignore it and explore the world by yourself, meeting characters, going on quests, meeting other players and going on missions with them. Best of all, this game has a toolkit which allows you to build your own lands and quests for other users: you can do more than just play in the sandbox, you can adapt it and create new parts of it yourself.

How would this concept translate to a school?

The way I am imagining the new school is as a complex with inside and outside areas dedicated to particular topics. These could be traditional ‘school subjects’, but the lines delineating these could equally be re-drawn. The school day would be split up into a number of sessions (I’m thinking four), and children could choose which area to visit for each session with some guidance from a teacher. More about the school day and choosing sessions next week.

Quests in the Sandpit

Let me sketch for you how I imagine a session in The Sandpit School might look.

There could be an outside area (a bit of woodland, a cultivated wilderness or garden, whatever is most suitable and feasible in the school’s location) which is dedicated to exploring nature. It is safe and enclosed, the children can’t get out by themselves and they are supervised. There is a hut where you can find folders and books with pictures and information about the local wildlife, to which children can add their own fact sheets and photographs. The hut also has digital cameras, binoculars, camouflage clothing, fishing nets, jars for collecting specimens, notebooks, pencils, some laptops and a printer and dictaphones. There will be three or four adults in this area, two teachers and two teaching assistants, for instance.

Discovering nature

Discovering nature

When children go to this area for a session, they can either choose to explore a topic of their own choosing in small groups, or they can join in a ‘teaching expedition’, led by one of the teachers. Topics could include bird watching, mini beasts, growing vegetables or flowers in a garden area, bees, animal tracks, life cycle of a frog, photosynthesis, ecosystems or the water cycle, to name but a few. Choosing the small group option would be like going on a quest that interests you with a group of similarly inclined players. The teaching expedition would be like following the story line the game designers have prepared for you. The small groups who go exploring together would have children of various ages in them, and the older children would be encouraged to take some responsibility for the younger ones and help them on the quest. The teacher who is not on the expedition and the teaching assistants/parent volunteers would roam around the area, keeping an eye on the independent groups of children to keep them safe, help them if they get stuck and be available to answer questions.

Your turn now! In the comments, maybe you’d like to imagine other areas and sessions. What would the History room be like? The English room? Could there be a little train running around the whole complex, or would there be system of little indoor/outdoor roads that children could travel along with bikes/toy cars/tricycles, to practise road safety? Give me your ideas! And as always, please feel free to violently disagree with the whole idea.

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A new independence and all that comes with it

I was feeling quite smug up until recently about having discipline sorted with my 2.5 year old. It was an area of bringing up children that I had not been looking forward to: as a teacher, classroom management was probably my weakest point and I was sure I’d be a terribly weak, inconsistent mother who would let her son run rings around her. But I surprised myself. In fact, having found behaviour management hard in my job, I had gone out of my way to educate myself in the tricks, techniques and philosophies of discipline, and so I started motherhood with a toolkit at the ready, fresh and in the forefront of my mind. Also, the element that I had been lacking in class, I found in myself quite naturally in this new situation: confidence in my own authority.

So after some initial start-up problems (when are they old enough to understand time-out?), I found my groove and things were going along swimmingly. I did ‘natural consequences’ (“if you abuse this toy, I am taking it away”), redirection (“no darling, you can’t play with that in here, but why don’t we play with it in the garden”) and for extremer cases there was the Time Out Chair. The Boy was often exuberant but rarely purposefully naughty; he was eager to please; he was easy to distract.

One of the ways in which I can tell that my little boy is no longer a toddler, is that his “naughtiness” has become more deliberate. The risky experimentation and exploration of the toddler days has been joined by a purposeful defiance: hearing Mummy say “Stop!” but seeing if it really matters if he chooses not to.

Over the past few weeks or so, he has started hitting and kicking. It is clear from his rather shoddy technique that the purpose behind the flailing arms and legs is not initially to hurt, but to keep people away. He starts kicking his legs when I try to change his nappy, wanting me to stay away and keep off him. He pushes or lashes out with his arm if I have thwarted his will and he wants me to leave him alone, or he wants to show how annoyed he is.

Hitting is not okay.

I have tried various things to sort it, but although they usually solve the issue at the time and result in apologies, none of them have so far resulted in preventing a repeat offence.  What gets me most of all, is that he finds it funny if I tell him he has hurt me, and he does it again. This I cannot abide. When I tell him that it is not a funny joke, he laughs all the more and says “funny joke!”, hitting me again.

As you can tell from how I started this post, I have not yet found the answers, but I thought I’d share my thoughts on the situation.

1. The brain does not process negatives. 
This is a bit of wisdom that I picked up from Derren Brown. When you give someone negative instructions, all you are really doing is planting the idea more firmly in their heads. My son is doing quite a lot of parrotting at the moment, and the way he does it shows that Derren Brown has a point. “We’re not going to Gran’s today,” I say. “Going Gran’s today!” the Boy sings gleefully from the back seat. Or perhaps he is holding a felt tip pen and considering it, his finger poised over it. “Don’t draw on your finger!” I say, trying to prevent the inevitable. “Draw finger!” he says, his mind now made up, and proceeds to paint all his finger nails.

So: “Don’t hit Mummy,” is probably the worst thing to say when he is cross. All that does is fix what he is doing more firmly in his mind. Better to make a positive statement that gives him an idea of what he could do instead. Perhaps: “Why don’t you calm down and we’ll talk in a minute.”

2. Why is he getting angry in the first place?
I also thought it was worth thinking about why we were having these temper tantrums in the first place and whether at least some of them could be avoidable. I started to notice that at least half of the incidents started with me trying to do something for or to the Boy: tooth brushing, nappy changing, putting on shoes, sunscreen, helping him into his car seat etc. The kicking and hitting of the past few weeks has gone hand in hand with a new quest for independence. The Boy puts on his t-shirt by himself. He wants to climb into the bath himself. Instead of just asking me for milk, he now opens the fridge, gets the milk out and brings it to me.

Of course, I can’t prevent all confrontations and it would be foolish to try. But it is worth giving him more of the independence he craves and seeing if that makes him feel a little less frustrated.

3. Take up time + distraction
Part of what frustrates me is his defiance. Previously, telling the Boy to stop doing something wrong would at least cause him to stop and think. Now, it makes him laugh and do it again. This shouldn’t surprise me, as part of the problem is that he is trying to become more independent and assert his will.

One of the tools I collected in my teaching days is called “take up time”. In a classroom full of teenage boys, the last thing you want to do is make things into a power struggle. If you pitch your will against a student’s in a room full of their peers, they are unlikely to do what you want. So if someone is playing with their mobile in class, you go up to them and say: “Joe, phone in your bag or on my desk. Thanks.” And then you walk away, assuming that they will comply. This gives them a chance to do as you ask while you’re not looking, without losing face.

I decided that perhaps the Boy needed an almost-3 year old equivalent. Instead of saying: “If you kick me again you will go into time out, you understand?” and then staring at him, daring him to do it again, I should perhaps follow the threat with a jolly: “Now, let’s go and build a really really long train track!”


Those are my thoughts of the moment. Hopefully, given enough time, I will catch up with my son and adjust my parenting to meet where he is at – just in time for him to hit the next developmental stage…

In which you speak

In which you speak

We speak, we smile,
pour love and time
into this tiny life.
We sing, we rhyme,
we speak, we smile,
we wait a while.

You blink, you stare,
absorb the world
and at the sounds of life
for you unfurled
you blink, you stare,
become aware.


A tiny finger
picks out the man
who whispered truth & life
when yours began
A tiny finger
on him lingers.

You say:
Da da.

You speak, you name,
You stake your claim
You stand, you make,
You step into the world-


(c) Judith Kingston, 2013

Prose for Thought
Wednesday Words

Reinventing Education: How shall we structure school?

Clean Slate

Clean Slate now has a blog all of its own! No more education posts will appear on Secrets of the Sandpit. Please click here to read and comment on this post and catch up on my latest thoughts on reinventing education.

Welcome to this instalment of Clean Slate, my initiative to scrap school and start all over again. Today we will look at how best to structure a school, so I hope you’re sitting comfortably and you’ve got your notebooks ready.

Do we actually need school at all?

After my last Clean Slate post, a lot of people asked me if I planned to home school my children. In short: no. Does that make me a hypocrite? I’d say no, but then I do have a tendency to lie to myself so maybe I am a little bit. The thing is: I think we are doing school wrong, but I don’t think the answer is to scrap school and for everyone to educate their own children in their own home. I want to scrap school and rebuild it from scratch. Not everyone has the time, the patience or the inclination to home school, but everyone does need an education. Also, over the course of human history we have gone from a situation where most people knew how to do most things (sew, cook, make fire, make shoes, ride a horse, build a shed, kill a rabbit etc.) to the situation we have today, where we have specialists for each individual skill, making us dependent on each other for our every day necessities. This means that no one adult can provide their children with access to all the skills they might need or fields of knowledge they might want to explore. We need to team up to educate our children. Thus, I feel there is a need in society for such a thing as school.

NB: I should add that this doesn’t mean every child should attend school. I am all for home education by people who are able and willing to do it.

A guiding principle

So, let’s roll up our sleeves and make a school. Last time we established that children should set the curriculum themselves, led by their interests, survival needs and ambitions, guided by adults. We said we should trust children in this, and that we should let go of our obsession with everyone learning the same thing, at the same time and in the same order.

At the moment, schools are structured in order to achieve what we are trying to avoid: children are grouped according to age; each

Unconventional use of Megablocks, but why not? Child-led learning

Unconventional use of Megablocks, but why not? Child-led learning

year they have to achieve certain targets which have been determined as appropriate for their age; at certain set points in their school career they have to sit nationally standardised exams.

As Ken Robinson says in his excellent TED talk: why are we grouping children by ‘year of manufacture’? What does that have to do with their learning?

An alternative would be to group children according to ability, but I think not. That means frequent and plentiful testing, embarrassed nine year olds in a maths class full of five year olds and a strong emphasis on how outside arbiters are  judging what you are doing. Of course, some people thrive on this. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there should be no testing or no competition. I just don’t think it should be the underlying principle for the structure of a school.

The reason I started by writing about motivation was because it is key. I said we are motivated to learn through our interests. Therefore, I propose school should be structured to encourage interests.

Survive, Explore, Specialise

I know the Early Years and Foundation Stage curriculum is very good at encouraging interests. Children learn through play and are given the freedom to follow their interests in a structured-but-free environment. However, my new school will go from early years right through to 18. So I would like to outline a way for this excellent start to be developed through primary and on into secondary education.

At primary level, the main aim will be to encourage children to explore. They should be given the opportunity to find out what is out there in the world that they might want to learn about. There is so much to find out about. It will take all of primary school to discover new things and learn a few basics about them. In fact, exploring should not stop at 11 or indeed ever, and should remain a part of school right up to A-levels (or whatever we choose to replace them with).

The aim of the exploring school years would be to widen the child’s experience and to help them discover what they are interested

Biology happens here

Biology happens here

in. Along the way, they will of course be learning about the topics they become fascinated by. They might come out of this phase with an extremely detailed knowledge of the American Civil War, Pre-Raphaelite painting and the workings of the combustion engine, some basics on the topography of South-East Asia and plate tectonics and a smattering of Japanese. And that would be an entirely acceptable outcome. I can guarantee you that in addition to this, they will also have learned to read, write and do maths. They will have needed to, in order to find out about their favourite topics, and so they will have been motivated to learn.

I would go even further and say that, whatever statistics might tell us, this is the actual outcome of education already. We may have “taught” every child the prescribed topics for science, maths and English, but they will still come out of school remembering only the things that captured their imagination and forgetting the ones they had no love for. So we might as well go with it.

At secondary level, then, exploring will continue. However, it will be joined and gradually over the years overtaken by specialisation. The aim here will be almost the opposite of the first stage, that is, to narrow the child’s field of vision so they can deepen their knowledge and focus on the skills necessary to achieve their goals. Please note that is their goals, not ours or the government’s. As school continues, the child will start to see a pattern emerging in what interests them – something we can help them with if required – and this can lead them to decide what they might want to study further, or what they might like to do for a career. They can then start to focus their school time on acquiring the knowledge and skills they will need in order to be able to fulfil this ambition. Again, the transition from exploring to specialising should be encouraged and guided by teachers but led by the child (who is by now a teenager). If, like me, they change their minds a lot, or are interested in many things, they should be given the option to either keep their options open for longer, or to put in extra hours in order to go deeper into more topics than the school day would normally allow them to.

Alongside this, for the entire duration of school, there are skills to be learned that are necessary for survival. They are different at different ages. A fourteen year old is usually pretty solid on not-touching-hot-things and tying his own shoelaces, but will need to learn about drugs, sex, peer pressure and staying safe online. I don’t really want to use the word, but yes, these are Basic Skills. Life Skills. In the New School, there will not be a set time each week for children to work through a booklet on the survival skill of the week. They will be dealt with as they come up. More ideas on this will follow in a future post, but for now it is enough to highlight that these skills will be the ostinato that accompanies a child’s entire school career, woven in seemlessly to reflect the fact that this is normal living. Not rocket science, but nevertheless important.

Let us pause

There is much more I need to say on this topic. We haven’t even got to organising children into classes or the school space yet, but my word count shows me that I have already gone on for longer than most people are prepared to read for online. So I will sum up my conclusions so far and leave the rest for next month.

Here they are:

1. In society, there is a need for collective education by teachers in a place other than the home. 

2. The guiding principle for structuring school should not be age or ability, but what interests the children.

3. School will start with the emphasis entirely on exploring the world to broaden horizons, then move slowly and increasingly to specialisation, narrowing children’s learning down in order to deepen their knowledge. 

4. Certain skills necessary for survival will be taught throughout, not timetabled, but in a natural way, as they come up.

Please do join in the discussion in the comments! Disagree with me? So much the better, tell me your views and we’ll make school better together.

Read more:


100: Present Moment and Future Proofing

Finding numbers in the supermarket

Finding numbers in the supermarket

This is my 100th post! I’ve been thinking about what to write about for this milestone and I have decided to go back to basics. This post is dedicated to the Toddler: who he is and how he talks at this moment in time. Thanks for being such a wonderful protagonist, S!


The Toddler is asking a lot of questions at the moment. He doesn’t ask “Why?” yet, although he does understand when I ask him for reasons, like: “Why are you in time out?” The answer: “Kicking. Hitting. No sunscreen.” He mainly uses questions to wonder aloud and make choices: “Banana, or apple? Which one I like, Mummy?” His favourite type of questions are rhetorical ones. I tell him we are going to a party, and his response is: “Going….. Gran house? Going…. children’s centre? Going…. cafe? Nooooo, going party!” This gets a little tedious sometimes when used to prolong bedtime stories, every page taking three times as long because we need to go through all the things that are not on the page: “Is a candle? No. Is a ribbon? No. Is a bird? No. Is a button? No. Is a apple!”

Sentence structure

The Toddler is making some more adventurous sentences. He will now thank people for something. Daddy took him out for a spin in our new car and then had to go to work. The Toddler waved him off shouting: “Bye bye Daddy! Thank you little drive nice car!” He also surprised me at dinner time by wanting to pack up half of his tortilla. When asked why, he said: “Bewaren voor in de trein.” [Save for on the train] We weren’t planning to go anywhere by train, but he was very insistent and I wasn’t allowed to even put it in the fridge. He was saving it for on the train.

Parenting comes back to haunt you

It does. Like when Daddy is cooking sausages on the barbecue and gets told with firm insistence by the Toddler: “Daddy! Don’t touch a barbecue! Really hot!”

Or when you say: ” Come on, enough TV now. Let’s play Doodlebugs!” and your toddler replies: “Nog niet, mama. Strakjes.” [Not yet, Mummy. In a minute.]


A tentative start has been made on potty training. The Toddler is not too bothered about letting us know when he needs to go yet, but will rush to follow you to the toilet if you announce that you need to go. On arrival in the bathroom he will ask: “Kleine WC of grote WC [small toilet or big toilet], which one you like, Mummy?” Then, he wants to peer into the toilet to observe and comment on the proceedings (argh!), and will ask afterwards: “Lekker gepoept, mama?” [Had a nice poo, Mummy?]

My favourite of his investigations into biology, however, is his research into breastfeeding. He knows this is called ‘voeden’ in Dutch and that your nipples are involved. One day, he lifted up his t-shirt, pointed at his nipples in turn and said: “Eén voeden, twee voedens.” [One feeding, two feedings.] Then he asked me in Dutch: “S feed baby?” I explained that only Mummies could breastfeed. He thought about that for a minute, and then wanted to know: “S feed baby tomorrow?”


For one hundred posts, I have been referring to my son as “The Toddler”, and I suppose he still was one when I started. But I look at him now and he doesn’t toddle anymore. He walks, studiously holding on to the buggy, squeezing through tiny gaps because he MUST be next to the buggy and go through doorways at the same time. He runs, round and round in circles until he is dizzy and falls down on the floor giggling. He jumps, higher and higher on everyone else’s trampolines as we don’t have one. He climbs, clambering up and down higher and higher ladders, stairs, climbing frames, over the edge of things, into the bath and out of his car seat. He crawls, to show his little sister how it’s done.

He is not a toddler anymore. He is a child. The Baby, cruising along the furniture, taking shaky steps holding onto our hands: she will be the toddler soon.

It is time to Future Proof my blog, and I would like to take this opportunity, in my 100th post, to give my children new pseudonyms. From now on, and to cover all future developments, they will be The Boy and The Girl.

My boy. Not a toddler anymore.

My boy. Not a toddler anymore.


20 week scan

My son.


Was that really you?

That tiny hand, waving
grey fuzzy fingers
saying hello
in utero

Was that already you?

Were you thinking
five fingers on each hand.
Were you tasting
Mummy canna have-a apple?
Were you seeing
Oh! Mummy all red.
Were you bouncing
saying weeeeeeee

but soundlessly

inside of me.

Unthinkable and yet
as you curl up on my lap
lean in to me
clutching close
so close
feel my touch
hear my voice
smell my scent
I wonder:
do you remember
that home of heart beats
yours and mine
or both in harmony
and do you sometimes wish
you could go back and
that we could be


Are your desperate tears
a yearning for a time
when I could never leave,
never be apart
from you?

I go and wave

You wave five grubby fingers
peach and apple-sticky
waving still but frowning
as already you yearn

for my return.


(c) Judith Kingston, 2013

Prose for Thought