This article appeared in a magazine in South Africa - read whilst on holiday and it made for some very interesting thoughts about children and the pressure that they are subjected to from an early age ... Penny Marshall took her four year old daughter out of her reception class at a London primary school and placed her in a school in South Africa. The move was drastic, but it would fundamentally change her daughter Jessica and the family's views on primary education in the UK. Jessica, like her younger two sisters was destined for the best secondary school that we could find, and that meant early precision planning almost from the moment of conception to get her into the best primary feeder school for secondary success. For that success, whether in a state or the private sector, doesn't come easily. So we moved house into the catchment area for the best state school and also took Jessie, then aged three, to be "tested" at a series of private London day schools. I remember her being led away from us by a kindly elderly lady to be interviewed on her own. She was all but still a toddler. The pair disappeared behind a large door and I was left in the hall thinking that the assessor had power over my daughter's entire educational future. When Jessie was 'selected' for the private day school we accepted the place, and I was certain that we had set her on a clear path to adult success. She soon started at the single-sex hothouse school, which 'guaranteed' excellent entry results to many of the leading London day schools. I felt that I could relax; job done! Jessie had been unable to read at all when she started school four months after her fourth birthday, but she sprinted through Biff and Chip books that she brought home faster than I could tick them off on the parental reading chart. Faster, I noticed with some satisfaction, than many of her classmates with whose mothers I discreetly compared progress each day in the playground. I dismissed Jessie's morning tummy aches as normal pre-school nerves that she would soon grow out of. Neither did I think it odd at the time that one of her four-year-old friends was being taken to and from school sucking her thumb and stroking a muslin cloth. Her mother explained that the long school day ‘left her too exhausted to walk’. When my husband was offered a job in Johannesburg (South Africa) in the spring of Jessie’s first school year, the only downside seemed to be that, for the two years we would be there, our daughters would miss out on their excellent primary education. I remember promising Jessie’s head teacher that we would keep up her Oxford Reading Tree commitments when she started her new life under African skies. The need to ‘stay on target’ for that 11-plus, even in Africa, was paramount. In return, the school would keep Jessie’s place until we came back. All I had to do was hire a tutor for her in South Africa because formal education there does not begin until the age of six or seven. Jessie was facing a two-year ‘book-free zone’ – a potential academic disaster. In fact it did not take me long to realise that two years without books was the best gift that any mother could have given a child emerging from that early English educational experience. From the day that she was assessed in South Africa, it was clear that we had a problem. In London she was judged to be ‘highly academic’. In SA she was designated ‘special needs’. Pretoria, the state capital, was teeming with children of diplomats and workers from all over the world and educationalists there were used to dealing with the offspring of international visitors. “Don’t worry,” the child psychologist told me, “we see this all the time from your private and public (state) schools. Your system just doesn’t develop the whole child.” There was I, bursting with pride because Jessie was practically reading Harry Potter at the age of four, being told that there was a problem because she couldn’t stand on one leg and maintain balance for any length of time with her eyes closed. It took us four months of swimming, tree-climbing and sunshine to get Jessie out of the ‘monkey puzzle’ room (their term for special needs) and a further two months of bush walking, beaches, African singing and trampolining to forget about the tutor altogether and donate all her Oxford Reading Tree books to charity. Jessie, like her sisters, learnt nothing ‘formal’ during her time in SA but rather absorbed more than she needed to through play to keep abreast – and, at all times, ahead of her peers back home. She and her sisters started school at 8.00am, kicked off their shoes outside the classroom and returned home for lunch at 1pm for an afternoon of more play, this time outside and unstructured. There were no tests, no talk of ‘correct pencil grips’, no enforced ‘writing’ at tables dividing them into ‘bright’ and ‘not so bright’ ones (and don’t tell me that children don’t know the difference between the ‘triangle’ and ‘circle’ groups; our adult codes conceal nothing). We stayed for six years instead of two, and our daughters all returned to the English system enriched by their ‘lack’ of education and able to fit in without any fuss whatsoever. Jessie even passed the dreaded 11-plus that was her promised portal to a ‘leading day school’. But she didn’t go: there is more to education than Biff and Chip. One of the best experiences that the girls had in SA was learning African music, singing a cappella with a Zulu teacher at a Rudolf Steiner school, although they didn’t attend the school full time. The teacher would not let me, or them, see any sheet music or read any lyrics as we learned the songs – something I found difficult but not the girls. “The children must learn with their ears and memories,” the teacher told me. “Music must be learned in the heart and not in the brain. In your country you only know how to learn with your brain”. Upon our return to the UK, we, like our daughters had been changed by the experience and constantly sought alternatives to the ‘brain only’ approach to learning. We decided no more pressurised hothouse education for Jessie! She and her sisters went instead to a local church primary. With the eyes of a newcomer I could see pushy parents wanting results were as much a part of the problem as the targets and testing that their children were being forced to endure. In conversation with other parents at dinner parties, I was horrified by the competitive obsession with secondary school entry. But, what else is there in this country for parents who, like me, shun the targets, testing and academic pressure? In the private sector, high-profile schools offering alternative approaches, such as Summerhill in Suffolk, are still mostly considered options for the rich and eccentric. There are a growing number of private Steiner and Montessori primary schools emerging to cater for parents seeking a different and more ‘humane’ approach to education. There are more than 30 Steiner school in the UK including one in Greenwich run by a group of parents so determined to offer their children an alternative primary education. Those seeking alternatives for their children can also choose primary schools that dare to put happiness before league tables – which is what we did when we came home. This obsession with early academic success is ‘killing’ our children and dare I say that we are churning out some clever kids, but with little or no social skills and also not too happy. Our daughters are now at three different secondary schools – and have finally stopped walking barefoot down our West London street as if they were still in the African veld. Jessie is planning a summer of volunteer work in South Africa. And she, like her sisters, can also still stand on one leg for a long time with her eyes closed. Do you feel that our children are starting formal education too early in this country?