Jonah would never draw our attention to the fact, for example that he’s being taught up a year in maths and yet still got the best end of year scores in the class, or think to tell us he’d made it onto the school council. These things aren’t really on his wavelength as occurrences of note, being far more interested in the minutiae of MineCraft or Match Attack cards, which he will talk about endlessly, whether or not anyone is listening.
My parent teacher conference, on the hoof this year, rather than the scheduled afternoon only, have to get a childminders in, once a term job that means I have to take time of work, was rushed and ad hoc – his teacher, solid, capable, knocking on the boundary between youth and middle age – and well used to getting the year’s share of “challenging” kids, did not dwell on his academic achievements. It was after school one day, and she was rushing to get to a meeting. Instead, she preferred to comment on his inability to queue, and tenancy to talk tangentially in class to whoever will lend him an ear. These are traits I know well. I would have preferred to know how well he can spell, which when I pressed, I discovered his marks had been slipping since he keeps forgetting to bring home his weekly word list. This is something we can work on – he now doesn’t get pudding (generally a mere square of chocolate) until he’s written out his list. There’s less I can do about his Aspergersy tendency to chat at random. But it’s not the way of Jonah’s school to celebrate innate talent, in any case, making much more of good behaviour, politeness and kindness as traits to be applauded – a policy which makes a lot of sense but which slightly rankles my latent tiger mother sensibilities.
So when I discovered a letter hastily flung in his sister’s book bag, but regarding her brother, I assumed it was something negative - a letter, perhaps, about the throttling he’d received at the hands of another kid earlier this term, about which I’d only discovered from the finger marks around his neck, or a comment on the juvenile ganging up of a group of boys, including my son, on another child with special needs in his class, to which his teacher had referred, glancingly, and about which I had strong words with Jonah.
But the letter wasn’t negative. It was astounding. Because he has ASD, Jonah is of interest to specialists studying the condition, and months back, we had been asked for our permission to allow him to take part in a series of tests, about which we were told very little. We gave it, out of curiosity more than anything, and these were the results. They showed that Jonah has verbal dexterity beyond even ‘normal’ children his age – his pragmatic language skills, thought by many experts to suffer in ASD diagnosed children, were off the scale. He scored well above average in everything, and took full marks in many of the tests.
That Jonah is academic is not in question. But what is, is, does it actually matter?
Glowing, briefly with maternal pride, I excitedly asked Tom whether we shouldn’t be pushing him more, perhaps to take a scholarship entrance exam at one of the City’s finer paid-for institutions. He stands a good chance of aceing them, without any private tuition, so surely it was worth giving it a go.
And then, seconds later, I realised what a complete mistake it would be. Jonah’s “good” state primary school is right not to make much of his academic ability without focusing on his social skills. Shunting him off to a school where he would be socially out of his league in so many senses, even if he could outperform the most prepped on paper isn’t going to do anything for him in the long run. He will be much better off at a local school, where all his friends are, where he has a fighting chance of feeling ‘normal’ – which is surely the most important thing for any child to feel.
The fact is that being good at school has very little to do with how well you get on in life, and inflating Jonah’s ego about his ‘cleverness’ while failing to see that he struggles to form good relationships is success suicide, and will only lead to a massive let down when he realises – as I did, belatedly – that getting good grades doesn’t necessarily translate to getting a better job, or being more successful than the peers you trounced at exam time.
And that’s why schools – and government policies need to focus less on testing and ranking children, and more on ensuring they are mentally, physically and socially healthy, before worrying about their academic performance. With two pieces of education news catching my eye this morning, this couldn’t be stated more firmly. One, is the annual publishing of schools’ league tables. Another, was this in the Guardian, about a study which found that a child’s performance in school is much more genetic than previously thought. Which means that where your child’s school is on the other is largely irrelevant. And from my own experience, neither will account much for how well your child does in life.
So as a thought to other needlessly pushy parents out there: there’s a strong chance that whatever you do for your child in terms of schooling, they will turn out a lot like you. So we should all do less worrying. And comparing.