Should children be able to skip a class?


(c) Quentin Blake

“Is Back to the Future real?” my son wanted to know.

“No.” I said regretfully. “People don’t know how to travel through time yet.”

“Oh.” The Boy looked disappointed.

“Hey, maybe you will invent time travel one day!” I said.

The Boy laughed modestly. “I might need a bit of help,” he mused. “Maybe Daddy and I can do that next week.”

He is nothing if not ambitious.

But honestly, I would not be surprised if he did invent time travel one day. He has already worked out his own method of doing multiplications at 5 years old, and can add two digit numbers and reads books in two languages and draws world maps with “Rusher” and Mexico on them.

In the Netherlands, if a child is bright and has an autumn birthday, it is not uncommon for them to skip a year. Often this is done right at the start of a new school, so you don’t have to join an already estabished class and be both the youngest and the newest.

In the UK the accepted wisdom seems to be that having an autumn birthday is an advantage – it is better to be the oldest, especially for boys, they say. Also, moving children out of their age group away from their immediate peers is just not done.

However, there is definitely a precedent of a British child successfully skipping not just one, but several years. I present you with: Matilda.

I mean, seriously. Moving her up to the top class, despite her age, was clearly the best thing to do. Differentiation was a nightmare for Miss Honey, she was getting far too invested in that one student to the detriment of the rest of the class and, generally speaking, you don’t want your kid to resort to telekinesis in order to get rid of their excess brain energy.

I have been thinking about this issue a lot lately. On the eve of The Boy starting reception, I considered asking if he could go straight into Year 1, as he was already reading and doing Maths at about year 1 level. I was concerned that the school would not be able to help him on with so many other children to guide through the basics at the same time. I was worried about him getting bored.

All the people I spoke to about this said the likelihood of him being moved up was practically zero, so I decided to just resign myself to it and hope for the best. As it turned out, they have excellent extra support in Reception and the Boy has two or three one to one sessions in the week to stretch his literacy and his maths, to fill in the blanks that he definitely has and to move him along. I am delighted at how he is doing and his class teacher is brilliant. Also, he is making friends and the thought of him moving out of that group is sad – I am not sure he would even want to.

But the doubts are creeping back in. Reception has these extra resources, but what will happen further up the school? As a teacher, I have plenty of first hand experience of the wide range of abilities you get in a class, and what you need to do to make sure everyone is learning. I don’t have teaching assistants or extra pairs of hands in my class, so catering to the different levels is all down to me.

It is so easy to just let the capable ones be a little bit bored.

This afternoon I sat with a student who was really struggling. I wanted to help her get just one answer to just one question about a reading text. I was painfully aware that my top two students had finished in minutes and were just keeping themselves occupied. But I had to help the weaker student: if I didn’t, she would lose motivation and lose faith in herself and stop learning. If the stronger students are a bit bored now and then… what then?

My students are adults and very self-motivating.

My students pay for their course and have clear goals they are aiming for. This helps them carry on, even when they are not being stretched enough sometimes.

But children live in the moment. They might be planning to become a fireman or an astronaut, but they won’t relate their literacy or maths sessions to this goal. It is still too distant. The hit on motivation for a weak student, who is struggling with the task at hand, is instant and instantly evident, and teacher support can have an instant effect.

The hit on motivation for an able student who is not being stretched is very slow and very gradual. It is the dimming of a light as their battery is run down and not being recharged. And sometimes, as a teacher, you don’t even notice when the battery is flat. Because the visible effect will be that the able student will just slot into what the class is doing and be more easy to manage. It is so easy to let your gaze slide off this and heave a secret sigh of relief.

Ofsted is not going to put the school into special measures for this and social services are not going to come calling. They might not even notice.

My son is loving school and comes home full of stories and excitement every day. Also, he is not moving plates or furniture around with excess brainpower just yet. He is happy where he is. And I don’t think he is going to end up on drugs or in the gutter if he is not challenged, his love of learning is not encouraged or he is not allowed to keep learning at his own speed. But he might also never cure diseases or invent time travel.

What I’m saying is: the future needs the bright kids to be fully charged, not held back because it is easier.

There are of course many, many questions to be asked about this. Is moving children up actually the solution, or should the battery recharging just happen outside of school, at home? Is it more important to stay with your peers? And do we even want time travel?

What do you think?


Literacy and Numeracy with Poo

How can something so innocuous be the source of so much pain and suffering?

How can something so innocuous be the source of so much pain and suffering?

Well, despite all my misgivings (see posts one and two on potty training), the Boy has had a breakthrough with the potty and seems to be as sorted as you can be when you’re three.

So, of course you will now want to know: what was the secret? What made him decide to abandon the easy life of weeing and pooing where you stand, to having to go and take your trousers off and sit on an uncomfortable receptacle, followed by wiping and hand washing and all sorts of things that take you away from doing what you want for absolutely AGES?

Two things: chocolate and numbers.

This should not have been a surprise, really. From when he was tiny, the Boy has always been easily pacified and distracted by food, and, well, you all know about his obsession with numbers. We have yet to find anything that isn’t made better by adding numbers into the mix.

This is what we did:


1. Bribery: All the left over chocolate coins in the Boy’s birthday treasure chest were pressed into service as a reward for doing wees in the potty – TWO for a poo, as this was proving to be more of a challenge, just as Pirate Pete had said it would. The Boy soon cottoned on, and would come running in from a trip to the potty shouting: “One gold coin, Mummy!” He did struggle, however, to understand that it wasn’t so much the presence of a deposit in the potty that earned the coin as where it had originally been deposited. All too often he would poo in his pants, tip the poo into the potty and come and demand double rewards. (My apologies if you are eating while reading this, but then it’s your own fault, the word ‘poo’ in the title should have tipped you off)

DSCF45862. Reward chart with numbers: When the gold coins ran out, I switched to a sticker chart. This proved surprisingly popular. I thought he’d like it less as it drastically reduced the treat-frequency, but as it turned out numbers were more exciting even than chocolate. I drew ten footsteps per row, numbered them and ended each row with a star. The first two stars were some kind of edible treat and the third star was a small present (eg. a little wind up ladybird from Mothercare @ £1). He again earned one sticker for a wee and two for a poo. “Number 3, Mummy!” he would shout elatedly while pressing a sticker onto the footstep, “seven footsteps to go!” He was doing subtraction without breaking a sweat. We went through three of these charts before I just quietly didn’t make another and he didn’t ask after it.

3. Poo numbers and letters: By this time, the number of floor puddles had reduced to zero and he had stopped soiling his underwear. Poos were still an issue, though, and every other day we would have almost non-stop potty trips trying to get shy faeces to come out, until in desperation I just left his trousers off. It worked. He came running up to me in triumph, mostly naked, saying: “Come and see Mummy! I made a J for Judith!” In trepidation, I went to have a look. Resting neatly inside the potty, was a massive long poo, with a curve at the bottom. It was, in fact, a J. He hadn’t touched it with his hands, it had just come out like that. This moment marked a turning point for the Boy. Poo was no longer scary. Poo was a new opportunity to spot numbers and letters in every day life. I am now regularly called in to admire a “number 1” or an “opposite 7” (backwards) or a “letter R: down, up, round and FLICK!” (thanks, Squigglet). A slightly unorthodox method of learning to read, I believe, or even to potty train, but it works for The Boy.

So there you have it. The Boy appears to be mostly potty trained. It took about 6 weeks from the Day of Constant Puddles to now. The lessons I have learned from this would be, firstly, that the key to successful potty training is owned by each child themselves and has something to do with their character and special interests (really not rocket science, I guess) and secondly, that the key to successful literacy and numeracy teaching is, of course, poo.