We have started secondary school. Angel has gone from a Steiner School of 20 to a state secondary of over 2000. It is a lot. Some days are good, some not. The homework is too much and totally beyond her. We plough on spending up to two hours a day doing it with her, while she becomes increasingly overwhelmed. We are having to google and learn stuff to teach her. We are overwhelmed too and as hubby grumbles, ‘I’ve bloody been to school and done my time.’ I feel she is being robbed of her childhood. I watch how she has returned to playing with her horse farm endlessly, clinging on to the innocence and freedom of childhood play.
We are both shocked by the draconian approach to discipline. Happy and sad faces on the blackboard at the start of lessons. Three strikes on the sad face and it’s a detention. Surely there is a better, less shaming way? Is this what I subscribe to now? And don't get me started on the uniform? Shirt, tie, blazer, smart shoes, strictly no trainers. Who dresses like this now? And even if we did, who thinks it appropriate for 11 and 12 year olds!? Think the shock has been as much mine as Angel’s, after the child front and centre world of Steiner.
I hold myself steady. Is it also my fear about her growing up? I’ve spent so much time leaning in and desperate for space, I’d never paused to consider what it will be like when she doesn't need me so much. I was never that mum holding back tears at the school gates on the first day, unless they were tears of worry... Seeing her in a uniform for the first time left me all of a jumble and that was a surprise.
Issues crop up every week. Angel has lost her geography book. She is at first too scared to tell her teacher but then manages to find her courage and speak up. After a history test, she hangs back after class to tell her teacher that she has come from a Steiner school, has never done history and never sat a test and when she hears the word ‘test’, she gets a brain freeze.
I am astounded. ‘Wow’, I say, ‘Never mind the history, being able to speak to a teacher like that and tell your story and how you feel is advocating for yourself and that is such an amazing thing to be able to do. I’m so proud of you. That is amazing.’
She beams and I think, well she’s learnt something from Steiner as there aren't that many 12 year olds, a month into a new school who could speak up for themselves like that!
They are doing dystopian futures in English. Angel is asked to write a description of a dystopian future from a first person perspective. She wells up thinking about it, ‘No mummy, I can’t imagine myself anywhere bad, it’s too scary!’ They have been shown clips from the Hunger Games in class and next up is George Orwell. For year 7s?! Angel is still discussing which imaginary horse we are taking to the park!
Angel doesn’t complete the English homework. I email her teacher to explain her issues and how much she is struggling.
The teacher calls me the next day. Her mum works with fostered and adopted children. She knows how tough it is. She is so lovely I want to cry. Actually, I do cry. She says, don’t do any English homework, just get her to read. The relief is palpable.
There are more good things. Angel has made friends. She is having a laugh. She loves her form tutor who tells me at parents introductions four weeks in that she knows Angel is settling in, as she is beginning to chat more in tutor period, like the other kids.
We have a friend whose adopted son is in her class. I tell Angel that Gerald is adopted and when they get to sit next to each other, she tells him that she is adopted too, which I think is brave and sweet.
Another girl joins the class that she knows from an adoption group she is part of. Somehow they fall out but she navigates it all with ease and manages to make up. I see how she is managing the daily dramas with a new assurance she didn't possess a year ago. When she falls out with her bestie and everyone is saying bestie wants to fight her, she tells me, ‘Oh don’t worry, she’s just got anger issues’. She tells me about her home life and her dad saying ‘she is an embarrassment to the family’ and her mum calling her a ‘bitch’.
Me - No wonder she’s bloody angry
Angel (laughing) - Mum, Language!
Me - I'm sure you can figure it out with her as I know you're really good at that, That's one of your super powers.
And a few weeks later she does.
These are not just good things. They are bloody amazing considering how hard Angel found it to navigate the daily rivalries and relationships at Steiner.
Angel’s history teacher tells her the homework she has spent hours on isn’t what she asked for and isn't long enough. She bursts into tears as soon as I collect her. I am outraged. I had read the brief . It didn't specify how long it should be! In fact, it said, ‘don’t write too much’. How do we know what is too much or not enough? I quietly fume.
That evening Angel plays teacher, dragging our games board from the kitchen to her bedroom where she shouts at imaginary kids, before putting their name under a sad face. This is what she did at her state primary school. My heart is heavy.
Me - Finding it tough, huh?
Angel - Yup
Me - It’s a lot to manage
Angel - Yup and I’ve never done history or any of these subjects!
She wells up a bit before angrily carrying on writing names under faces.
Me - Hey, why don’t we put all your teachers under the face you think they deserve? Let's show what we think of them! If they want to put kids on the board, we can put teachers on the board too!
Her face literally lights up.
Angel - Yes!
She takes to the task with gusto, umming, ahhing, explaining, rubbing out, moving names around. Yes, I think, this gives her some purchase over this new out of control situation. This gives her back her power, a power that she was robbed off when she was little moving all those times, being placed here and there before finally with us.
After a time, we stand back to survey her work.
Me - ummm isn’t that interesting. Look at all those names under the smiley face!
We count them up.
Me - Fourteen on the smiley, five on the neutral and five on the sad face.
I think we were both equally shocked.
Me - Wow! Actually that’s not a bad ratio is it?
Angel - No it’s not really I guess…..
Me - Fourteen teachers you like. Pretty good right?
She tells me about the teachers she likes and what she likes about them and we both feel a lot better. My intention was to give her back some power but actually it made us both realise that things aren’t as bad as we thought.
We speak to our family therapist who is shocked and says it isn't sustainable or healthy that we are having to do so much homework with her. Phew! How did I think it was ok or sustainable myself?! Hard to think clearly when you are peddling so furiously to keep up.
I write to the school.
I’ve now spoken to Ms Hinds and Ms Cassy about Angel and what extra support can be put in place to support her at Kingsdale. I’m now including Mr Fatadu in this email, as I believe he is the lead on previously looked after children.
Is it possible to have a meeting this week before half term? As you will have seen from the email to Miss Taylor, we have been assisting Angel with her homework as what is being asked of her is often way beyond her capabilities.
We have realised that this is not sustainable, and it is taking it’s toll on all of us. We need to discuss how best we can help to get Angel up to speed, so she can work faster and more independently.
We have heard that it may be possible to drop a subject and get additional maths and English support in school. If this was possible, we think it would go a long way to helping. She has a maths tutor outside of school once a week and we could look at an English tutor too if she didn’t have so much homework to complete.
I have also slowly been emailing individual teachers as difficulties pop up. Most have been very understanding and receptive but have known nothing of Kayla’s background. I thought it would thus be pertinent to explain a little more about Angel and her educational background to send to all her teachers in the hope we can stave off future issues.
Angel is adopted and like most adopted children this early trauma informs her flight and fight response, self-esteem, anxiety levels and resilience for criticism, especially in relation to adults. An off the cuff remark that would bounce off most kids, may floor Angel for a number of days and she feels any punitive measures very acutely. She is generally diligent and compliant at school, so encouragement is the only way to get the best from her as her own inner critic is always at work.
She is finding the punitive environment hard to manage at Kingsdale (whether measures are aimed at her or not) and thus spends a good deal of time in class in fight or flight mode which makes processing and retaining information difficult. She has been coming home and playing teacher in a very strict harsh manner moving people’s names around on her whiteboard from a happy to sad face and her greatest fear is getting a detention or being on the sad face side of the board, which she experiences as very shaming.
Angel moved from a state primary school halfway through year three, after telling us she would rather die than go back to school. Friendships were good but she was struggling academically and found the ever-present threat of punishment in class very frightening.
We thought she might be dyslexic but once she settled at The London Steiner School, she went from throwing books across the room in frustration to picking them up and was no longer afraid to try.
Steiner education is very child focused and they work slowly and thoroughly covering one topic (such as the Greeks) for six weeks. Within this they will play games the Greeks played, make costumes, draw pictures, tell stories etc. Their work is presented in a main lesson book and nothing goes in to this until it has been worked in rough first. Thus, Angel is used to presenting her work beautifully with this being the objective rather than speed. We were hoping she would have been able to stay at her school until she was 14 before transferring to state secondary for GCSE’s and most Steiner kids make this transition well at this age. Sadly, following Covid and Brexit, the school lost lots of pupils and eventually closed in April with only 20 kids remaining. We managed to keep the majority of Angel’s class together and set up a home school situation hiring our own teachers to carry her class of seven through to the end of the summer term.
We have dropped Angel down a year (she is also a summer born baby) but in many ways, she is still very young compared to kids in her year.
It has been a shock for Angel coming to Kingsdale but we are very proud of the way she has risen to the challenge. She has made good friends and is really engaged in learning in the less academic classes. We think she could thrive here given the right support but also think we need to act quickly so she doesn’t lose moral.
It is worth saying that until she came to Kingsdale, Angel had never sat a test. She says just hearing the word ‘test’, gives her hot sweats, clammy palms and brain freeze so please don’t judge her abilities from test results.
We are invited in for a meeting with the Head of Learning. She is lovely and totally gets it. Says she sees Angel walking around the school with friends, having a good time and that as long as she still wants to come in and is happy, we are more than halfway there. ‘We can help you with the academic stuff, it's actually so much harder if they are struggling socially’.
We agree that easier homework will be set and she says, ‘the most important thing for Angel to concentrate on is relaxing in lessons, so that she is able to take in what is being taught.’ We feel heard, supported and infinitely better.
But it’s early days, time will tell.