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The Tortoise and the Hare

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

As parents, we all have a guilty secret. We all want our child to walk before the children of our friends, to talk before them, to read before them. Michael McIntyre has a great sketch in which he observes how much we all compete as parents for our children to do things first - following it up with the equally accurate observation that he has never met a 35 year old who crawls around the door of a party with the words, 'I just never learned to walk'.

We all know that our children will learn in their own time; we all, in our most rational moments, know that each and every child is valuable in his or her own way and will learn according to their own timeline. We all have moments of thinking that our children are better, more talented, more sensitive, kinder than any others and moments of knowing that our own children have strengths and weaknesses like any others. And yet we continue to push them.

With my own daughter, I found it incredibly challenging to cope when she left Year 1 about to turn 6 (she is August born) with a reading age of 11. In order to continue to challenge her vocabulary and ability to cope with plot I needed books for 11 years olds but I had a child who was emotionally (and actually) 6. It was a real challenge. She was bored by books for 6 year olds but unable to cope with the emotional demands from stories which continued to stretch her vocabulary. And yet still as parents we want to push our children to do things quickly rather than well.

It is terrifying how often I hear parents saying of their child, 'Well Jemima's school says that she is now two years ahead of herself'. Or worse, schools who say of children who are visiting, 'these children are two years behind where our pupils are'. Will they go on to University at the age of 14? Will we be asking them to become partners in a law firm, surgeons in a hospital or head teachers of leading schools in their early 20s?

In a recent comment piece in the Telegraph, Peter Tait, former Head of Sherborne Prep, comments brilliantly on the dangers of weighing IQ too heavily over EQ ( It is certainly true that many children who have a strong start in schools plateau and achieve less strong results than might have been expected. I suspect we can also all think of people who didn't do well in their studies up until the rather knowledge heavy GCSE point of assessment but who flew at A-levels and University. Intelligence is far from simple and any meaningful metrics must be multifaceted.

We all know in our hearts that our children's happiness is more important than their exam results. We all know that we want our children to ask themselves hard questions not simply to serve as vessels to be filled with knowledge. We all know that we want them to be able to fail in a safe place and learn, like Eric Liddel, to pick themselves up, learn from their mistakes and win the race in their own way. Of course we want our children to celebrate in the sunshine but we also want them to learn to dance in the rain.  

I wonder how many parents looking at schools ask about the number of leavers from that school who didn't make it through their first year at University. I wonder how many schools know the answer to that question. I wonder how many children felt really prepared to make that leap. Education isn't about what to learn but about how to learn it; once you understand that, you can learn anything.

So my new educational theory is McIntyrism: the best education is one in which the needs of the child are placed above the aspirations of the parents. In our hearts, we all know Michael McIntyre is right; and in the end, it's not our life but the lives of our children which we hold at the centre of our ambitions.

We all know that, in the end, the Tortoise beats the Hare because it takes the race at its own pace. And it wins.

Chris Wheeler

The Tortoise and the Hare

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