7

I'm not sure if this is the best place to ask and I suppose this is going to be an outlet for my frustration, but I could also do with some advice from people that may have been in the same situation

My son is 4 years old and has always been a quick learner - he was walking and saying words a few months old and now at 4 years old he's a lot further ahead than some other children of his age. He is not a genius, but he's certainly very gifted when it comes to learning through observation and retaining knowledge.

He's just started primary school after attending nursery at that very school for a year. At the end of the nursery year the workers praised his speech, knowledge, behaviour and reliability and said that he was hitting targets that they would expect at the end of his 1st year.

Now that he's moved into 1st year, his new teacher has started giving him books with no words (where he must describe what's happening in the pictures) and is saying that he must learn phonetics by the end of the school year (we are only a few weeks in at the moment). They are also teaching them how to write letters and numbers and how to count...

This would be great were it not for this tiny detail.

My son can read, write and count already and has been doing so for over a year and a half.

Now let me just clarify:

He is not completely fluent with more difficult words and has to take a moment to absorb them (e.g. Roald Dahl books he can struggle with but kids books he hasn't much of a problem with)

His writing is not perfect, he does need to work on it. The letters are all well formed and correctly oriented but they don't always sit on the line and he occasionally starts letters from the bottom rather than the top.

However, he is definitely much further ahead than some of the other children and often complains that he's bored at school or that school is "too long". We all know that days drag when you are bored and fly when you are occupied, so I can only conclude that he is not being challenged.

They want him to learn around 30 phonetic sounds and also learn some other "tricky" words such as "to", "the" by the end of the school year. He can read these words with no problem and he can also spell them (and much more difficult ones) using letters - not sounds.

We've been in numerous times to argue the point that he needs more challenging work, to which we are always given the same answer "he is being challenged".

I don't agree - he tells me they are learning to write numbers at the moment. He's been doing that for more than a year (and they are all formed correctly with the correct orientation)

The teacher also let slip at parents evening that they ask my son to help the other children when he's finished his work...

Last time I checked he wasn't getting paid a part time teaching assistants wage, I'd rather they gave him additional work...

(interestingly the teacher denied making that statement the next time we met - categorically denied it yet both myself and my wife were present)

My wife made a point that I disagreed with. She was of the opinion that it's the schools duty to push and challenge my child. I'm of the opinion that it's quite the opposite: they don't really care about individuals - as long as they can show that X number of children achieved a certain standard their job is done, if that means leaving the bright ones to their own thing whilst the others catch up, then so be it.

i.e. It's completely up to the teacher to have the passion and drive to deliver what my child requires at school above and beyond what the government require.

Are the school taking me for a ride? Does the teacher really just not care?

I'd love to know if anyone else is experiencing the same problem and how they are dealing with/have dealt with it in the past.

  • Welcome to Parenting.SE. Is changing schools an option or not? You mention "taking me for a ride" -- does this mean you're paying to send him there? Have you spoken to anybody above the teacher? – Acire Oct 17 '15 at 13:41
  • What country are you in and (if applicable) what type of school is it? Have you already spoken to the head teacher or one of the senior leadership team? – A E Oct 17 '15 at 14:43
  • Changing school is not really an option as my wife is disabled and getting him from school is already a challenge (I work full time). I live in the UK and these are public schools - so I'm not paying them out of my pocket (unless you count taxation!). We've been in for meetings with the teacher/headteacher who both say the same thing, but I did make the point to my wife that these people are colleagues and for all we know could be good friends. I had much the same issues myself and got no support from either primary or secondary. I want to do better for my son though! – Charleh Oct 17 '15 at 16:26
  • I don't have any idea how the U.K.landscape is on this, but home-schooling might be a possibility. Of course, the viability of that option may depend significantly on the specifics of your wife's disability. – Dan Henderson Oct 17 '15 at 19:25
  • @DanHenderson - homeschooling is virtually non-existent in the UK, it's a route you only take in extreme cases. It tends to be a difficult process and if they decide you're not teaching the child well enough can order you to take them to school (with fines and potentially prison time as punishment.) – James Snell Oct 19 '15 at 10:52
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I'm a parent governor in a UK primary school, with a daughter just started reception and another daughter higher up the school, who was reading before she started reception (so I've been in a similar situation).

I've been a school governor for about 4 years so I have a pretty good idea how British primary schools work. We're in England; from your profile it looks as though you are too, but if you (or future readers) are in Scotland / Wales / Northern Ireland then beware as I believe there are some differences.

I'm going to talk about a mixture of two things:

  • Practical steps - what you can do

  • Attitude - productive/unproductive ways to treat the teaching staff

Practical steps

  1. Talk to your child's class teacher. It sounds like you've done that, but you want to make sure it's a pre-planned meeting with enough time to talk properly, not just a quick word in the playground - so if you haven't had a 'proper meeting' (at least 20 or 30 minutes to discuss properly, not just 5 minutes at parents' evening) then arrange one.

  2. If that doesn't get you anywhere, talk to the head teacher or (depending on the size of the school) a member of the senior leadership team such as the assistant head for Early Years. Again this should be a pre-scheduled meeting with enough time to talk properly, not just a quick word in the playground. You could also ask to talk to the member of teaching staff who looks after 'gifted' or 'high learning potential' children.

  3. Still no results? Write to the Chair of Governors. Politely explain that you're not happy your child is being adequately stretched. Expect them to take a few months to reply - expect a formal letter in reply.

  4. You can complain to OFSTED if you're still unhappy, although at this point your relationship with the school might have broken down so badly that you'd have taken your child out of the school already. Parent complaints to OFSTED can trigger a school inspection.

  5. If the school really is not catering for your son's ability, you have politely and clearly talked to the school's management, and they have no plan to improve (e.g. by putting him up a year), then you will need to consider taking him out of the school. You could home-educate, or you'd need to find a way to get him to/from another local school. I notice that you work full-time, but options might include a childminder, a friend with children at the same school, a flexible working pattern, wrap-around care at the school (i.e. breakfast club / after-school club)... feel free to add a follow-up question on this.

Approaches

  • Give them time: We're right at the start of the school year and teachers all over the country are still getting to know the individual children in their class. Your son may have been mis-assessed at a lower level than he actually is - it would be reasonable for you to ask for him to be re-assessed on reading / writing / numeracy. All of this takes time.

  • Don't assume the worst of teachers: If you treat teachers as the enemy then this will hamper all your efforts to get the best for your son. Much better to treat them as the dedicated professionals which the vast majority of them are. I realise this may be a difficult issue for you to face, but the way you've phrased your question suggests a degree of hostility from you towards the teaching staff - it seems very early in your son's school career for this to have built up already, so I'm wondering if it's related to your own unhappy experiences at school - in which case it's something to deal with, but not something to take out on your son's teachers. Examples of things you're written that I'm inclined to find unduly hostile / assuming the worst of the teaching staff:

    • "saying that he must learn phonetics by the end of the school year" - it's actually 'phonics', and they're not doing this for any reason specific to your child - they're doing it because the National Curriculum says that's what they must do in Reception. It's a legal requirement (one which in fact many teachers disagree with, but can't say so publicly). Also (and this is a somewhat contentious area within education circles, so I'm going to skate over it a bit) just because he already knows how to write lots of words doesn't mean that phonics won't be beneficial for him - learning phonics in Reception can be helpful for spelling in the older years. Anyway, it's a contentious topic, but not one that's specific to your child, or that the teaching staff have any choice about. They're not doing it to be awkward.

    • "The teacher also let slip at parents evening that they ask my son to help the other children when he's finished his work... / Last time I checked he wasn't getting paid a part time teaching assistants wage..." - the teacher 'let slip' that your son was working in mixed-ability groups where children are expected to work together? That's normal, and it's beneficial to him. Suggesting that he's the equivalent of an adult teaching assistant indicates either an insultingly low opinion of the teaching staff or a grandiose idea of your 4-year-old's abilities (however gifted he is).

    • "these people are colleagues and for all we know could be good friends" - one would hope that as colleagues they are friendly to each other, but that's no reason to suppose that the head would conspire with the class teacher to cover-up poor performance, and it's kind of insulting to both of them to suggest that this might happen, and in the absence of any evidence that it's taking place, seems really unnecessary as a first thought so very early in your son's school career.

    • "they don't really care about individuals - as long as they can show that X number of children achieved a certain standard their job is done" - No. Schools are assessed on a wide variety of criteria, but it's absolutely not the case that so long as everyone meets a minimum standard the school's job is considered 'done'. One of the key metrics of school performance is 'progress' i.e. how much value has the school added to how the child was doing when they started there. See the DfE performance tables for more info.

  • Find out more about the school curriculum - it's just helpful to know about when you're talking with the teachers. The more you know about it, the more informed and constructive your criticism is likely to be. Apart from actual knowledge of what the curriculum consists of, the British education system has a lot of jargon which takes a while to master. Many schools have parent workshops where you can find out more about aspects of the curriculum - if your school doesn't then ask it here as another question and we can get into some detail about online resources.

  • Look at what you can add outside school - enrichment activities. See the National Association for Gifted Children and Potential Plus for help.

  • Think about a wider context than just academic achievement - ok, so academically he doesn't have much to learn from Reception, but how about socially? emotionally? physically? If he's not intellectually stretched during Reception then that might give him more time, mental and emotional resources to progress in terms of emotional and social growth. It's worth talking with your partner and doing some thinking about how he compares to his peers in terms other than the strictly academic/intellectual - there is more to school than just the actual 'work', particularly in the very early years.

  • What your 4-year-old tells you happened at school isn't the whole of what happened at school - e.g. see How can a parent encourage their child to talk more about what they did at school? The standard reply for a child (particularly as 4-year-old) being asked what happened at school is "nothing". Being able to summarise their day is a learned skill which at 4 years old they're not typically much good at. So when he "complains that he's bored at school or that school is "too long"", that probably only relates to the last 10 minutes of the school day, or to whatever he remembers most clearly. It's a pretty big jump from "school was boring" to the idea that he's being totally unstretched in every department. For example, many 4-year-olds find that in the transition from Nursery (basically 100% learning-through-play) to Reception (about 90% learning-through-play with a bit of formal teaching), the 'formal teaching' bit is dull (compared to good ol' playing). Equally, the transition from half-days at Nursery to full days at Reception is often very tiring for kids, particularly in the first term - perceiving a full day at school as 'too long' does not necessarily correlate with lack of challenge in every area.

  • 2
    You mentioned a few often overlooked points in your answer (+1, obviously). – Stephie Oct 17 '15 at 20:23
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    @Charleh, I'm not suggesting for a moment that he shouldn't be challenged academically/intellectually. What I'm suggesting is that there might be a downside to moving him up a year. The ideal is for the class teacher to be able to offer enough differentiation for a range of abilities within the class. The EYFS curriculum info is here BTW: gov.uk/government/publications/… – A E Oct 17 '15 at 20:27
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    Also, before getting your child moved up a year in one school, check what the policy is in future schools. Someone I know got moved up in primary school, and then had to repeat the whole final year of primary because the secondary school wouldn't take them a year early. – Paul Johnson Oct 19 '15 at 6:57
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    I'm going to accept this because you covered everything so well - I'm still at the stage where we need to work through this with the school as I think we are both struggling to come to terms with each other. I'm worried that since we are only human that someone may not be putting as much effort into their work as I'd like (sometimes your career is your passion and sometimes a job is a job). I don't want to complain without sitting down with the school and trying to work out where we stand. Like I said, I was probably frustrated when writing the above, I'll report back with the resolution :) – Charleh Oct 19 '15 at 16:51
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    Well, turns out they just needed more time to assess him! Not sure what was going on in the prior weeks but they have just assessed him for his current year, then assessed him for next year and he's where he should be at for nearing the end of next years school term (in his reading anyway - they have yet to assess his maths and some other subjects). We ended up going up to the top level of reading books he can get and a shedload of extra stuff coming home with him and he is finally excited to go to school! The wife feels much less stressed now :) – Charleh Oct 21 '15 at 10:35
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Most schools are fundamentally structured to teach a lot of children at the same rate. Teachers learn techniques to help that happen. Slower learners are engaged using all their senses, and given plenty of repetition. Faster learners might be given extra credit assignments that are more interesting, or the opportunity to help others (which is beneficial to the tutor as well).

But arranging for your son to do a completely different topic while the rest of the class is doing phonics is very difficult in a traditionally-structured school. It's not a matter of how much the teacher cares. They generally don't have the time, resources, or training to accommodate that kind of request, without something drastic like skipping an entire year.

There are some options that are much more suited toward individual learning rates: homeschooling, private tutoring, sudbury valley model schools, to name a few. If you're serious about retaining your son's advantage and not letting him get bored, it's probably going to require some sacrifice on your part.

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I'd love to know if anyone else is experiencing the same problem and how they are dealing with/have dealt with it in the past.

The organization "Mensa" has a lot of people experiencing the same problem who have dealt with it with varying degrees of success. They have some resources listed here (see esp. under Parent/Teacher resources and they have an e-list) and they have a Foundation that does work on this topic.

Extracurricular challenges may be your best bet, including challenges you can supplement with at home. Check out programs like Destination Imagination now or FIRST in a couple years if you want the programs to be more social.

Are the school taking me for a ride? Does the teacher really just not care?

The school is probably judged more for what it does to help its worst performing students, not its best performing students. Your son is going to help the school's rating on any standardized test/evaluation, without any further attention or assistance from the school. What's their incentive to help him actually be challenged in a way that's going to engage and educate?

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    Not sure who downvoted as it's polite to leave a comment/reason - I found this helpful, thanks for your input but I live in the UK - but at least it gives me hope that there may be an equivalent over here. – Charleh Oct 17 '15 at 16:29
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    @Charleh, Mensa is international - you should find it in the UK, too: mensa.org.uk – Stephie Oct 17 '15 at 20:54
  • @Charleh The ideas and resources on the US site may also be relevant and interesting for you even if you are in the UK. – WBT Oct 18 '15 at 4:46
  • @Stephie I'm aware that Mensa is international, I was talking more about the resources they provide - often on the other side of the ocean things are a little different :) – Charleh Oct 18 '15 at 10:38

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