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Are we Expecting too Much of Children?

children sitting in autumn leaves against a big tree

Childhood these days is no longer the same happy, care-free time that many of us once endured (and I'm saying that as a recently turned twenty-year-old!). When I look back at my own childhood, I spent a lot of it playing with my friends. When I first started school, we would start the day by playing, have a few hours of doing English and Maths in the morning, and would spend the afternoon playing. This was pretty much up until I started year three, but even then we would still get plenty of playtime and there was still an element of freedom.

Children these days don't get that. I did work experience in a primary school three years ago and I was really shocked at the lack of play opportunities these children were afforded. I went during the last week of term before schools broke up for summer holidays, and what I could remember doing during that week when I was at school was pretty much playing and watching films every day for that week. But these children didn't experience that. They still had to do schoolwork. When I was in the reception class (for those of you not in the UK, these are children aged four and five years old), they all had a worksheet at their desk which they had to sit and do from the moment they stepped into the classroom. They then continued to spend the rest of the day doing nothing that looked remotely fun in the slightest and only got to go out for play during their fifteen-minute break and hour for lunch (but by the time they had finished eating their lunch, they probably only had no more than half an hour to play). This shocked me because as someone who is studying Early Childhood at university and having read various reports linked to childhood and play, as well as thinking back to my own experiences and forming my own opinion based on what I have seen during my time on placement, it is very clear to me that children learn best through play. This is a fact that I will keep with me until the day I die and in some respects is why I could never be a primary school teacher (which is what I thought I wanted to be when I first started university) because I would want the kids that I teach to be able to explore a lot of things through play, which unfortunately due to the current learning climate I would be unable to do. I'm sure given the current state of the world, every parent who had to spend lockdown homeschooling their child(ren) will agree that it is quite impossible to get them to sit still for extended periods of time and to concentrate on their work, which is because children aren't programmed like that. They shouldn't have to sit at a desk for 6-7 hours a day, five days a week, and do worksheets and be talked at by a teacher. Yes, I think there should be some element of that, but the vast majority of the time, particularly in the case of young children, they should be able to explore their learning through play - which actually happens a lot more times than you may actually think. For example, even just using building blocks enables children to learn about different types of shapes, the difference between 2D and 3D shapes, and can also help with their concentration and development of fine motor skills, amongst a whole host of other things.

Moving away from younger children and to teenagers now, teenagers these days have to go through so much stress, even more so than I probably did and I only left my teenage years behind me this year. They're going through a curriculum that is supposed to prepare them for the 'big wide world' when in reality they are only being taught things that won't actually help them. Want to be taught trigonometry and not learn how to write a CV? Welcome to the British education system.

Don't even get me started on GCSEs and A-Levels. I was lucky enough to be in the last year group to take the old-style GCSE's, meaning I would start the GCSE at the beginning of the year and take the exam at the end of it and also had a load of coursework. Now, teenagers are having to start the GCSE in year 10 and take the exams at the end of year 11 and are also given little to no coursework. I will admit, when I did my GCSEs, I took five optional subjects (and the core subjects on the side). Three of these were done over one year (I took one in year 9, one in year 10, and one in year 11) and the other two were taken from year 9 through to year 11. The idea was that the ones we took over three years would give us a better grade, but from personal experience, I actually got the same grades in these two subjects as I did in the three I took over one year. Plus the fact we are constantly being told that we need to work exceptionally hard at our GCSEs in order to be able to get anywhere in life. Sure, you may need the grades to get into your chosen college/sixth form, but as the years go by, your GCSE grades will be needed less and less. In fact, in many cases, a lot of people will only require you to need five GCSEs at C grade (or whatever the equivalent number is now). Students are being told that if they fail, they won't get anywhere in life. This isn't true. There is always the option to re-take your exams if you absolutely have to. There are also other ways you can get to wherever you want to be without these grades, even if it just takes that little bit longer to get there. One of my tutors actually failed a GCSE that is related to what I am studying now, yet she ended up being deputy vice-chancellor at her previous university. At the end of the day, a grade is just a letter (or number) on a piece of paper that doesn't define your worth and isn't going to prevent you from getting to wherever it is you want to get to.

Moving onto A-Levels, what a rough time that was! A-Levels was probably the worst two years of my life and I still haven't properly recovered from them. There wasn't a day that went by where I walked into a room (whether that be a classroom, the study centre, library, or even the bathroom) where someone wasn't crying because of the stress they were under due to A-Levels. So many people like to judge students for complaining about how difficult their A-Levels are and that they never complained, like okay boomer but they are so much more difficult now and I'm sure you would see that if you had to sit and take them now. I put myself under so much stress to revise for x amount of hours a day (in the last couple of months before my exams, I was probably revising for around 12-14 hours a day with very little breaks) just to get a C grade that had been so easily achievable at GCSEs and was much harder to reach at A-Level. What annoys me even more is that the choice to make them so hard was set by people who have no experience of working in education and are probably the only people in the country that need no experience to do the job they do. Students all over the UK are having breakdowns and their mental health is really suffering all because of a few poxy exams. Some of us just want to live the end of our teenage years being carefree and being able to hang with friends, when instead we are being put under unnecessary amounts of stress (and so are our teachers) that is meant to affect our futures. I'm sorry but why are eighteen-year-olds being put under so much stress at such a young age to do something that may affect our working lives for the next fifty or sixty years? I get that life isn't easy, but it shouldn't be this hard and stressful at such a young age.

Then there's entering the world of work. I remember when I was about 17/18 seeing an advert for a job in a pub working as a waiter/ress which was apparently perfect for students, however, they required at least five years of experience. FIVE. YEARS. You really expect someone to have been working as a waiter/ress since they were thirteen? I'm sorry but that's not even possible. Yes, I do think it's important that people should have experience with the field of work they want to go into, which luckily I have been afforded through placements, however not everyone is given this opportunity. Some people may be able to volunteer somewhere or get an internship, but even then these sometimes require some sort of experience. How are we meant to get the experience if you're not letting us get the experience?

I personally think that we are expecting way too much of children these days. It is expected that everything they do in regards to pretty much every area of their life should be taken into consideration of the job they want to go into. Their GCSEs should be chosen with respect to what they want to do. Their A-Levels should be chosen with respect to what they want to do. They aren't allowed to make any mistakes on social media because that can affect their career. How can we expect children to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives at such a young age? I'm in my third year of university and yes I may know what sector I want to go into, but in terms of an actual job, I don't have any idea whatsoever. I change my mind so much, either with jobs or even the sector in general, that it's hard for me to have an idea of what I'm going to be doing when I graduate, let alone for the rest of my life.

As for younger children, they should be allowed to just be kids (and I guess this applies to teenagers as well). They should be able to go out and play instead of being stuck in a classroom all day. They shouldn't have the pressure of exams (children as young as six years old are having to sit their SATs exams and get stressed about that - something I didn't have to sit until I was aged eleven years and even then those exams don't really determine anything other than the sets I get put into at secondary school, which could easily be done without having to sit an exam). They shouldn't be having the pressure of getting home from school and having to do more school work. They should be able to just do what kids do which is playing outside, playing inside, watching TV, having fun with their friends and family. My childhood was one of the happiest times of my life because I got to play as much as I did, but without realising it, a lot of these kids don't have that.

Due to the global pandemic we have been going through, one of the things it has pointed out to us is the flaws in our education system and how our children are learning. Sadly, I think we all know that those with the 'power' to change these things won't actually do anything about it and will continue to make our children's childhoods non-existent. Childhood should be about having fun and making memories, because who's going to remember sitting in a classroom for hours on end over making play memories with friends?

So, I'm going to ask you the question: are we expecting too much of children?

Love Beth xx

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