Friday, 25 April 2008

A learning experience

Off to the Littleboys’ nursery for a meeting about the ‘Early Years Foundation Learning Curriculum’ (or some such waffle dreamed up by Ofsted). I am here somewhat reluctantly. The meeting was announced at fairly short notice, for the night of the week where I normally do a yoga class, rush back and eat pasta with The Doctor watching The Apprentice (and regularly shouting ‘You muppet’ at the screen). All in all, it's usually a pretty satisfactory night in after a day churning out features. So I was toying with not going, but having failed to return the attendance slip I was nobbled by the Nursery Manager, and agreed to be there. When I enquired about the meeting’s purpose, she told me that a number of mothers had been wanting to find out about what the pre-school children were learning. That should have fired off warning bells, but for some reason it didn’t, so here I am, sitting on a tiny toddler’s chair, surrounded by other Mummies. There are no Dads here (funny that) - and so far it looks as if I’m the only one who has helped herself to the wine.

Now, my view of the Nursery is that it’s fine. It serves my purpose: which is to provide childcare for the Littleboys while I’m at work 3 days a week, give them some interaction with other kids and let them get all messy with substances such as water, sand and dough that I would never in a million years allow them to play with at home. If they learn to count and start on the alphabet at the same time (which they do) that’s fantastic. I want the staff to be kind, the food to be edible, and yes, stories to be read and all that. But I must admit, I never really expected the Nursery to be an academic powerhouse. Surely there’s plenty of time for that when they start primary school, when no doubt we’ll be overwhelmed by homework, tests and targets?

It transpires, however, that I’m clearly alone and naïve in this simplistic view of the world. Because, 10 minutes after the man from the nursery’s Head Office kicks off a rather turgid Powerpoint presentation about 'learning via play', the haranguing starts.

Glam Mummy (a lithe blonde clad in skinny black designer jeans), is concerned that the 4 year old kids in the pre-school room are being ‘held back’ by the 3 year olds, who apparently want to bash about and destroy the educational toys rather than learning with them nicely. Yes, why can’t they be divided into 2 streams? another mother chips in.

They also clearly don't think that the ‘learning via play’ philosophy espoused by the Nursery is structured enough. “Why can’t we have Letter of the Week?” asks Glam Mummy. (I am puzzled – Letter of the Week sounds like something you should win a selection of face creams for by writing into Grazia magazine – but I am soon enlightened). “My daughter and I pick a letter of the alphabet and do Letter of the Weekend every weekend,” she tells us. "And I tell the key worker all about it when we come in on Monday morning."

My God, I think. Frankly, if we can get through the weekend at all without tantrums, food-throwing, accidents and relentless demands to watch the Pingu DVD, it’s a bonus. Never mind theming our activity around a particular letter….and if this little girl is doing Letter of the Weekend at age 4 what will she be doing at 8 – Tolstoy character of the week?

Another Mummy wants Show and Tell (which I thought was an American thing anyway). Why don’t they have it at this nursery – "other nurseries" do? (When I tell The Doctor about this later, he says, "Well, why don’t they send their child to those other nurseries? It's not as if they're allocated one - we do have a choice.")

At one point, Head Office Man talks about the need for learning both indoors and outdoors. “That’s all very well,” retorts one mother disapprovingly, “But I just get the impression that when they go out into the playground all they do is run around and go down the slide.” (Surely, I am thinking – this is what playgrounds are FOR? What are they supposed to be doing - an archaeological dig?)

The chorus of disapproval continues, and suddenly I realise we’ve been here for nearly 90 minutes. What is more, because of all the interruptions, Head Office Man appears to be only half way through his presentation. “I don’t want to keep you too late,” he mutters, but then someone suggests going off to get samples of the kids' work......

At this point I’m getting more and more uncomfortable on my tiny chair, and I'm itching to get back home and watch Alan Sugar fire someone. So I sneak out, the first to leave and no doubt scoring extremely black marks with the other mothers for not taking my son’s education seriously enough.

As I thank the (lovely) nursery manager, I notice she is looking incredibly glum. I wonder what her Letter of the Evening will be.

Postscript: When I talked to NCT Friends about this the other night, they pointed out that these mothers are probably terrified their kids won’t get into some highly competitive pre-prep. Apparently one 4 year old girl was rejected from a local private school for not knowing that ‘ball’ starts with a ‘b’. Perhaps we’d better start buying Alphabetti spaghetti…..

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