On schools, and tests, and school-readiness

Reading Have I Failed My Kids? by Celeste from Jandals and Jet Planes spurred so many thoughts that I don't even know where to start. 

(By the way, I even got The Man to read the piece (so fierce was my need to discuss it with someone and see if they, too, think like me), which he did. I don't remember his exact words, but as soon as he was finished reading he said something along the lines of, "I don't even know what to say to this. Glad I don't live in America?")

To those of you that haven't read it yet - I suggest you do, because understanding what the heck I am going to go on about will be hard if you're not familiar with Celeste, and her twin tornadoes, and the tests her preschool conducted on her 4-year-olds. 

And, yes, it might be a bit of a "heavy read" for those of you that haven't got children yet, just like I phase out when people talk about superannuation or returns on overseas bonds - I'm just not ready to be interested in those topics yet - so I don't blame you if you're not going to go through to the end. 

But to me, this article, is spot-on. My children are 5 and 2, and I've spent a lot of time thinking about child development in the past two years.

A lot.

I'm not a child development expert, and I will never proclaim to be one - however, I am interested in figuring out how my kids' brains "work", and how my own brain "works", and finding a balance between it all. It involves a lot of looking around, basically, and eagerly sucking in information whenever I come across articles or people that make sense to me.

And this - this situation that Celeste described in her blog - is just, like... jesus to me. Like, I don't even know where to start. 

It's so far removed from so much I go by, both in terms of how I view my kids and child development in general, and roles schools play in a society, that it's hard to even start talking about it.

It is.

But I will, so bear with me, please.


When me and The Man sat down in a paediatrician's office a year and a half ago, and she talked us through some basic terminology of brain imaging, and of developmental milestones, the one message that has stuck with me the most was this:

The thing that will influence my children's development the most - even more so than a variety schooling options, or the quality of support networks, or anything else that, on its own, is an important factor in children's development - is maintaining our family's happiness.

I've come back to this message... hundreds of times. 

Literally, weekly, sometimes daily occurrence is that when I don't know what to do, I ask myself, "Maria, how will this affect our happiness?" and it helps me, to know that aiming towards happiness is a valid developmental argument. Keeping our lives in a situation where we are happy, ie we have passion towards what we do - makes it more likely that we will actually do those things that are beneficial to us, and continue doing them.

Kind of like in Christchurch, when I asked The Kid's physiotherapist why she kept making an effort to see us at playgrounds and parks and gyms, and teaching us to involve beneficial physical movements in our lives - rather than making us come to her office once a month where we would do "exercises", which is how I pictured physiotherapy before I actually got involved with it - she said, confidently and plainly, that exercises in physiotherapists' offices don't work. It's been shown through research now, she said, that unless people enjoy doing these exercises - and mostly, monthly exercises in physiotherapists' offices aren't fun - then after a few months people stop doing them, and that, effectively, negates the benefit of physiotherapy.

Which is why now, as an official approach, physiotherapists (at least within the Canterbury's District Health Board which Christchurch is part of) - physiotherapists come to where the families are, learn about their lives and then find ways of involving physiotherapy in those lives.

Physiotherapists go to see children, not the other way around.

Something similar happened last week when a representative from a company called Manawanui (they manage support networks for people with disabilities in New Zealand) explained to me that in the past, the government would allocate disabled people set hours for cleaning the house, showering help, transport etc and would then liaise with those disabled persons on whether that's enough, or they need something else, or more. Basically, the government would decide what sort of support a disabled person needed, and then only give that.

Now, they do it the other way around. They give the disabled person a set funding - for example, $200 a week, but it depends on the severity of each case - and it is up to the disabled person on how they are going to use it, and who they will employ to get the services they need. For example, here is a story of Amy Hogan on Manawanui's website.

Of course, there are limitations. The money is to be used for actual support like showering and cleaning the house and whatever - not on cigarettes or drugs or whatever - and the government reserves the right to audit the accounts at any time without prior notice.

But the bottom line is, they have found that by 1) giving the disabled people control over what kind of support they need the most, 2) who they will get it from and 3) control over actual payments, down to negotiations over how much their support staff are paid - it makes 1) people happier, 2) the care more effective and 3) saves the government money.

Yes, the representative from Manawanui explained to me - it costs less money to do it this way, the government has found. By relinquishing control over how, exactly, the money is spent, they save money and it makes the disabled people happier, and healthier.


I know I am going off on a tangent, but where I am trying to get to is this: more and more I am broadening this "maintaining of happiness" approach to not just my kids' lives, but our lives in general, understanding that happiness affects hell of a lot of stuff. Kind of like a few weeks ago, I was listening to a radio interview with a doctor who made a point of saying that, yes, of course obesity is bad for a person's health - but heck, so is depression; that people who are chronically unhappy are, in fact, showing health outcomes very similar to people who smoke a lot, and eat too much, and carry other serious health concerns.

He didn't say it, but I thought whilst listening to him talk, that here you go, another example on the importance of happiness.

Basically: happiness has become a valid hallmark of decisional excellence for me.

Which is why, when it comes to schooling, you'd understand why we've decided to do what we're doing with The Kid: start him at school this year, when we could've just as easily started him at school last year when he turned 5.

But he wasn't ready last year. I wasn't ready for him to go to school last year.

I have been impressed with New Zealand's approach to schooling when it has come to my children. Yes, there are plenty of things I am not a fan of in New Zealand's schools - the lack of food provided by the school being at the very top! - but, the cornerstone of New Zealand's schooling the way I see it, is inclusiveness and the freedom to choose. Rather than molding kids to fit the schools, they mold schools to fit the children.

Even in Invercargill, a relatively small town, there are a variety of schools that have their own agenda. As long as they stick to the New Zealand curriculum in full, schools and communities are free to organise the schools in a way they see fit, which is why there are schools for religious communities, correspondence schools for families who live too far from any schools to attend classes at all, homeschools, military schools... You name it, New Zealand's probably got it.

Yes, there are problems with this approach - but it also allows parents to send their children to schools they trust - which is a big thing when it comes to education. A very, very big thing.

Yes, several officials resisted my decision to enrol my son at school later than he was legally entitled for it, last year - but in the end, it was respected (due to the law being on my side) that it was my decision not to until I felt he was ready, which is now, and I've been happy with it. 

And I know, this is another very long tangent I am going off on, but... part of this "freedom" of schooling, the way I see it, is that although preschools in New Zealand do "grade" their students by compiling overviews of their skills, ie little Johnny's fine motors skills are evident through the use of kitchen tongs etc, they also consistently reiterate that children are different.

Children are different.
Children are different.
Children are different.

The preschools I've been involved with do, anyway.

They don't expect children to fit median developmental milestones across all areas of development because they understand that it is not possible.

Median is a median because it's a, well, median. Median is in the middle of a whole lotta statistical data.

And it's a part of New Zealand's school system that I am, vehemently, proud of. I feel so passionate about my understanding that people are different that when I see it displayed in a collective system such as education which, by the way, is not easy to manage, I am, like, amen! sort of, hands-down, on board with it.

Which is why reading Celeste's article on her 4-year-olds tested by an American preschool felt almost physically painful to me. She writes:

"We do loads of fun and educational learning in the home, mainly because that’s what the twin tornados ask for. “Mum can I do my lessons” (letter practice)? “Can we play ABCs” (where we line up their ABC cards)? “Mum, can we cut out our hearts for Valentine’s Day” (that they’d drawn on paper – fine motor skills)? “Can we use the playdough” (fine motor skills)? “Can we do jigsaw puzzles”? “Mum can we play Go Fish/Old Maid/Memory”? “Can I make a necklace” (threading beads onto string – fine motor skills)”. Our house is seriously filled with their toys, games and crafting projects.
Had I known that the way you hold a pencil and their life drawings would be part of the core test to determine their readiness to start school, you can be damn sure I would have been focusing more on these skills at home."

I have read Celeste's blog for a while and though I do not know her personally, from her blog I see a mother who is involved and interested in her children's health, happiness and development, and who displays strong intelligence through her writing. She is analytical towards her children's school-readiness and the fact that her children were barred from starting school due to not displaying the few particular skills they were tested for, reminds me of Estonian, what used to be called, "elite schools".

In the main cities of Estonia, about a dozen years ago - which is important, because it may have changed by now, I don't know - there was widespread public discussion over several "elite schools" which enrolled children according to results of their own enrolment exams, which, if you think that the children tested were mostly 6-year-olds, is comical.

And let's be clear here: these were not private schools. They were publicly funded, "regular" schools for all means except one: they didn't have set enrolment zones, which meant they took in children from all over town, which meant they were able to "cherry-pick" children from all over town, and that meant that they could get the brightest, most school-ready children they could get their hands on in any given year, and the result of that was that these schools were Estonia's top-performing schools, in terms of university entrances.

And the discussion that surrounded those schools was centered around the fairness of such a system. For one, it was pointed out that 6-year-olds have such a discrepancy in their development that being "ahead" or "behind" at age 6 had very little to do with projected development by the age 20. It was also discussed that knowing someone already in that school was giving people the benefit of figuring out what was going to be tested during entrance exams, and then preparing children as such. And then of course the fact that being a public "unzoned" school, why were they allowed to turn away children they saw as troubled, when all other schools were required to take them in? 

Celeste's post reminded me of it, because it reminded me of the nature of "entrance exams" which, by default, can only test a very limited portion of anyone's skills and knowledge, and have to make a decision of enrolment based on that limited information which, at age 4.5 like Celeste's twins are, is... comical, don't you think?

The only part I really didn't agree with in her writing was her fear of her kids being the eldest in the class.

I, myself, was the eldest child in class, and saw clear benefits to it. In the standardised results based system I was studying in - mid-90's Estonia - I found academical knowledge straightforward and school, in general, easy. I haven't got many hangups about sending my son to school being the eldest in his class and look more at his school-readiness in general, rather than age, though I also know that what and how he will be studying in 2017 New Zealand is very different to what I was studying in mid-90's Estonia.

Okay, sorry, gotta go: kids have woken from their naps and as such, my personal time for blogging is over :).

But before I go, here are two interesting articles to read:

George Lakoff is a professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California, and I've been reading his thoughts in an attempt to understand why - why? - Trump is doing what he's doing.

Worth a read, if you've got time.


  1. Ma ise omal ajal ei saanud enne kooli katsetega äärelinna kooli saksa keele klassi sisse, sest viisi ei pidanud. Tavalisse klassi võeti kõik. Edasi olin 9 aastat klassi selgelt parim õpilane ja mäletan, et nii mõnigi kord oli ikka väga igav koolis. Õppimist meie klassis just väga kõrgelt ei hinnatud.

    Keskkooli läksin Tallinna Reaalkooli. Üllatus oli aga suur, et õpetamise tase seal oli tegelikult sama. Mõlemas koolis oli üksikuid õpetajaid, kes nõudsid oma aine korralikku õppimist. Aga enamus oli selliseid tavalisi. Pisut ebaloogiline oli ehk see, et äärelinna koolis tuli kõvasti õppida just matemaatikat-füüsikat-keemiat. Reaalkoolis aga inglise keelt, ajalugu ja matemaatikat.

    Samas eliitkooli õpilased olid selgelt teisest puust. Oli soov õppida ja ülikooli saada. Kui keskkooli klassist läks enamik edasi ülikooli, siis põhikooli klassist tegid seda vaid mõned üksikud.

    Nüüd on oma lapsed juba koolis ja näen, et Soomes vähemasti tegeletakse kooli poolt väga palju eraldi nendega, kes on teistest nõrgemad. Tublimatel on aga igav. Mu pojale iseenesest meeldib matemaatika, tihti autoga pikemat otsa sõites ta palub endale peast arvutamise ülesandeid. Aga kooli matemaatika ei meeldi, ähh nii lihtne.

    Ja lapsed on erinevad, seda näen oma kolme pealtki. Ûheksane ei võta siiani vabatahtlikult raamatut kätte, kuigi lugemine hakkab juba suht hästi minema. Neljane loeb ja käib iga õhtu mangumas, et emme las ma loen sulle :)

    Koolikõlbulikkuse katseid siin ei ole. Elame väikses kohas, nii et kõik lapsed lähevad ühte kooli, midagi valida ei saa. Samas on siin eelkool kooliga samas majas ja ilmselt eelkooli õpetajad jälgivad lapsi ka selle pilguga, kes on kooliks valmis, kes mitte. Üksikuid juhte on olnud, kui laps jääb eelkooli ka teiseks aastaks. Täpselt küll ei tea, aga ilmselt on selle ettepaneku teinud eelkooli õpetaja, kes on lapsega üle poole aasta koos olnud, nii et tunneb selleks ajaks last oluliselt paremini, kui üksikute testide põhjal.

    Pika jutu kokkuvõtteks, ma ei näe, et selline eliitkoolide süsteem iseenesest paha on. Las olla tublimatel ka mingi süsteem endale võimete kohase koolituse saamiseks. Samas olen nõus, et 4-6 aastaseid testida on suht mõttetu.

  2. I partly agree that the described tests are illogical. However, if one doesn't view being the eldest in the class as a negative then what harm exactly has been done to the family?

    1. I keep reading your question over and over again and I still don't get it. Harm to the family by whom? Explanation please :)

    2. Sorry for being so vague. What I mean is - apart from children entering school a year later, how has the situation negatively affected the family in the long run?

  3. Replies
    1. I shouldn't try posting using my phone! I don't know how I deleted my original post. Anyway. As an American now living in Wellington (with a 5 year old) I read Celestes post with some reservations. I have read her blog for a while and enjoy hearing her and her family's take on America. But the testing she was talking about was at a private school. And guessing from where they live in Southern California, probably a very exclusive private school. That testing is not typical of American public schools. As a parent I agree that parents probably know when their child is ready (or not) for school and should have the freedom to enroll their child (or not) when the time is right. And it shouldn't be based on testing at 4 or 5 years old. There's plenty of time for tests in school. Let's encourage our young kids to play and learn. And learn and play. Hopefully schools recognize that too. I'd be worried if they didn't and that would see me keep looking for a school that did. I really enjoy your blog and thought it was great to see you posting about other blogs I read! Cheers, Kate

  4. Maria, we just discussed the topic of whether my daughter should go to school 1 year earlier/later (she is born at the end of January, so we can pick either at 6,5 or 7,5). And she actually brought the example of you being the eldest in your class you both attended - and that this seemed to be an advantage. She basically used the same wording as you did:)

    1. She? "Eldest in your class you both attended"? Who are we talking about? :)

  5. Sorry - confusing the hell out of people here - I discussed the topic with my sister, so this was her comment. Me and you exchanged some e-mails before her wedding not too long time ago..:) Maybe it is a bit clearer now:)

    1. That's right, I'd forgotten about that! Makes sense now :)

  6. Hi Maria. I've been reading you since Alaska.
    Regarding the US schools, there's no need to feel sorry for us. Of course, there are dysfunctional school districts where private is your only option, but this doesn't seem to be the case with Celeste's story. More often than not, people playing the private schools' game do that because they want to play this game. On the East Coast where I'm staying, the best words describing the private schools' arena are hype and elitism. Testing of 4 year olds is just but one unfortunate aspect of that. Public options, at the same time, are perfectly fine - and they WILL take your child, however immature, and will provide necessary educational accommodations (which may or may not be adequate, but this is a whole different story).

  7. Hi Maria. Thanks for reading my blog. The situation was certainly an eye opener to the pressure that seems to be put on education of children in USA, at such a young age. Very different than NZ, and Estonia too, by the sounds of it. I had lunch today with a Kiwi who has been here in California since her 6th form year, and apparently it just gets more intense as your schooling progresses here. This testing was definitely only a private school thing, as that's where we had to send our children for preschooling, since it's all user pays here (another thing I miss about NZ). Although the testing results were pretty interesting, we're happy with the decision we have made to start the twins in public Kindergarten this fall, after they turn 5. I believe that they are both ready for the challenge. I'll keep you posted on the results, and good luck with your child starting in the NZ schooling system.