“You know there is no guarantee they will get a place in the high school when you return” These were the first words uttered by the children’s head teacher when we told her the exciting news that we were moving to Canada for three years. It sealed the deal for me – I had to escape an environment where getting a place in the ‘right school’ had become the predominant goal of family life. It felt a risk though; especially as the children were reluctant to go; we were leaving arguably ‘the best’ primary and secondary schools in the city, and heading into the complete unknown.
We were assigned a realtor as part of the deal – someone who knows the rental market and the areas we could afford to live. “How do you make sure your house is in a decent area for schools?” was my first question. “How do you mean?” she asked, confused. “Well how do you get a place in the school of your choice?” I asked. “You go to the school in the area for your address” she said. “Just type it in and you will find it”. “But what if it’s not a good school?” I asked again – I wasn’t making myself very clear. “All our schools are run by the Toronto District School Board” she replied “so they are all the same – unless you mean private?”. “No” I said. “I mean public – but what if there is no room?” “They would put on an extra classroom” she replied as though I had come from a different planet. “Oh” I said. How terribly straight forward. I was going to like it here.
We found a house and looked up our school. I phoned to ask for a visit so I could see what it was like. “Well you can come look round but the teachers wont be free because they are teaching”. Of course, I thought, visits are irrelevant when the school you go to is the school in your catchment. The teachers have better things to do than sell their wares. Our instructions were to pitch up on day one and take it from there. We didn’t even have to say when.
The secretary checked the address and dates of birth and then asked my son ‘Band, drama or strings?’ It turns out they have three lessons a week in which ever one they choose. I detected a twitch in my son’s eye brow, his face having been dead pan until this point. He is a drummer and chose band. My daughter’s grade were still on a rotation of all three and would choose next year. The secretary phoned up to their respective classrooms for two children to come down as there were new starters, and that was that. I went back to the house and tried not to be sick.
Despite all the anxieties and uncertainties the kids came home at the end of the first day looking relieved. “It was so funny mum” my daughter said, “the teacher told me to put my lunch in the bin! I said no, my mum wants me to eat it. The teacher eventually realised I thought bin meant garbage!” She was nine, and although she had been very sad to leave her friends and family, she would be ok. My son was a different proposition. At 12 he had just found his freedom in the UK, and had been devastated by the news that we were going to Canada. “How was it?” I asked. “Don’t even ask” he said, and went up to his room. Three hours later he eventually told me “the girls call me James Bond because of my accent”. “Phew” I thought. He was going to be fine.
We all settled into a routine pretty quickly. Without a car we walked everywhere, and temperatures of –25 and snow drifts were no barrier with the right coats and boots. At first I would collect my daughter and one day I was running late; having had to head down town to run an errand. I was worried sick that she would be crying on her own in the corner of the yard; all alone in a strange country. Instead she was queueing up for the ice slide and flinging herself down on the knees of her ski pants. It was like a scene from Happy Feet. I smiled to myself remembering the time at her old school when the whole place had closed for health safety reasons when the play ground froze over.
Occasionally there was homework, but the teacher told me never on weekends and holidays because that was ‘family time’. On one occasion my daughter had to study cereal packets for their marketing tactics. “Mum they use cartoon characters with big eyes and place them at the level of children’s heads in the supermarket – and they draw the eyes so they look like they are following you.” She had to spot the words used to imply the cereal was good for you like “healthy” and “grain”, and then work out the actual sugar contents. Another time she had to find the same news article in three different papers online; and work out what angle they were coming from when they wrote the story. What was fact and what was opinion? She was nine.
I volunteered to help on school trips whenever I could. By now my daughter was walking to school with friends so I arrived a little later. As I walked down the corridor music was blaring out of the sound system piped throughout the school; and the first graders were dancing away as they took off their snow boots and ski pants. The teachers were in the classroom singing along as they prepared for their lesson. It was ‘The Final Count Down’ by Bon Jovi. What a way to start the day. I later found out that the Grade 8’s chose what was played each morning, as well as making the tannoy announcements. By the time I arrived at my daughter’s classroom the Canadian National Anthem was being played and all the children stood by their desks singing along at the tops of their voices – my daughter included. At first I found it a bit bizarre – but I realise now it’s a very powerful way to make everyone feel like they belong. Next up was a mindfulness exercise. The entire school fell silent as one of the staff talked through a visual relaxation. It was piped into the office, the corridors, the toilets – starting the day mindfully was for everyone.
The school trip that day was to Toronto’s biggest park. It was part of a series of four visits in every season, and this was winter. It was minus 18 but off we went, first on the subway and then by foot to the nature centre. After a brief lesson we were free to explore – which meant kids running off into the woods knee deep in snow. The streams were frozen and made perfect slides. The sky was bright blue, the sun was shining and all you could hear was the sound of laughter and freedom. We came back later that week in the evening with my daughter’s cub troop. We all put on head torches and snow shoes and the cubs disappeared into the darkness. At the end of the evening the troop leader took them to a giant natural ice slide. “Watch out for the tree stump in the middle” he bellowed as they hurled themselves into the unknown. My son had joined scouts and he went to winter camp three weeks after we landed. It was minus 25 and they were in tents. His hot water bottle had frozen solid by the morning. He came back shattered and slumped in the chair. “How was it?” I asked tentatively. “Brilliant”. This was Canadian childhood.
After eighteen months my son was old enough to graduate from middle school and move up to high school. His speech was chosen alongside another young person who had been at the school from the start. He talked about change, and how hard it is and how you resist it with every bone in your body; but how you learn so much from it. He also talked about it not mattering how long you have been at a place, it’s about how people make you feel about being there that counts.
He had a number of high schools to choose from. The local one was great – and perfectly suited for kids who were all rounder’s. However, he could also choose a school that was orientated to robotics, or maths or sports or the performing arts or social justice. They all teach the same general curriculum but have a focus on their specialist area. He was interested in the last two and so set about applying.
The arts school was modelled on the one in New York that had inspired Fame Academy, and entrance was audition based. They had no interest in your previous experience or accolades just your performance on the day and potential in your chosen major (dance, musical theatre, visual arts, film, drama, music). He applied for percussion and for drama and practiced and practiced before the big day.
The social justice school was more academic and had an entrance test and essay questions. The students have a huge part in running the school, and the open day was organised entirely by them. It was a little chaotic but what better way to learn how to manage events. On Wednesdays they are free to choose what they do and the choices they made were inspirational – ranging from fundraising to ski club. The essay questions were “Peace is more than the absence of war. Discuss” and “How do the values at our school fit with what you want from education”. My son heard back first from the social justice school and was offered a place. He wasn’t sure if he would take it over the generic high school, but was really holding out for the arts school. It was entirely his choice and that was how all the other parents felt about it too. The options available were all so well respected it didn’t matter at the end of the day.
Eventually he heard that he had been offered a place to study percussion at the arts school. He was jubilant. His tutor group was his band and he set up his drums every morning. “We start the day with their major” the head teacher had said at the open day. “What they are passionate about will get them through the door in the morning, and then it is our job to keep them engaged in the subjects that have less appeal”. The creative atmosphere in the school was inspirational – with dancers limbering up in the corridors, musician’s performing in the rehearsal rooms and artists working on large scale pieces in the studios. My friend’s daughter was older and studying visual arts there. She wanted to suspend a table from the ceiling in the canteen as part of her installation, and the teacher said yes of course. The school productions we attended were like West End shows.
Tolerance and acceptance was a huge part of the ethos at the school. They had had transgender wash rooms for many years, and lots of young people talked about how going there had “saved their lives” because they could be themselves. “At what other high school could you leave your phone on the bench in the changing room in the morning and it still be there at the end of the day?” My son said to me. At what other school could you be without your phone all day and not notice I thought to myself. At parent’s evening the lead for music, his major, said “The only question I am really interested in is is this kid a force for good in the universe”. He gave my son 100%. I could not have been more proud.
My daughter, too, had a choice to apply to attend an arts enhanced middle school. It was a tough decision as she had made great friends and was very embedded in the community. She decided to apply anyway as she had nothing to lose. The process had nothing to do with artistic talent or experience, but rather your ability to learn in a group context; and an insight into why learning through the arts would suit you. She thoroughly enjoyed the workshop – for example dancing through science; liquids, solids and gasses, and creating a collage as part of a team. Her enthusiasm probably shone through and she was offered a place. She deliberated long and hard. She decided to attend as her friends were local and she would still see them regularly. More significantly she was in the swing of new experiences being a good thing.
It was the right decision and she could not have been happier. At the age of 10 she caught a bus and a subway by herself. She had no phone as she didn’t want one, and I felt entirely comfortable in a city of millions that she would be okay. Firstly because all the children were travelling to school this way, and secondly because the sense of community and people looking out for each other was something I had seen and experienced everywhere. All her subjects were taught through the medium of the arts – whether it be singing, dancing or drawing or making. Her first math homework (we got used to dropping the s) was to design a poster about how it is used in every day life. Next she had to design her dream bedroom, labelling all the different types of angles. For history they acted out tableau’s of significant events. As well as the facts, how did it feel? She was in her element. Similarly to my son’s school, free expression was central. At a concert there was a boy sat by her wearing a dress. “Who were you sat next to?” I asked later. “Oh that’s Sophie. We used to call her David when she first came to the school”.
The teachers had the option to work ‘4 in 5’ which meant being paid 80% of their salary over five years and taking the fifth year out. My daughter’s friend’s parents were both teachers and they were planning taking their children to Thailand for a year before the eldest started high school (grade 9), having done the same when she was in grade 3. Indeed taking your children out of school to experience life was seen as a positive thing.
The school system wasn’t perfect, of course, no school system is. However, it was certainly more creative, with a strong values base and a belief that children were unique and learnt in different ways. Children could wear what they liked, and in a culture of acceptance and tolerance and little interest in designer labels it only served to remind the system that each child was an individual.
After three years, it was time to come home. As predicted, there were no places left at the high school, which by now, both children were old enough to attend. They were distraught – my daughter because she was leaving Toronto (by now she was 12 – that critical age) and my son because he couldn’t be back with his friends here in Wales. “Oh well” I thought to myself. “At least I have ruined their lives equally”. They were eventually accepted into a school across town – perfectly fine but miles from home and involving a huge hassle factor in getting them there every morning, and home at the end of the day. It was a compromise worth making I convinced myself – the life experience had been invaluable. We would ride the angry storm. We had done it before and could do it again. Then, on the last day of term we received an e-mail – they both had a place at the local school as coincidently two children were moving away and as they lived so close they were top of the list.
The atmosphere of year 10 and the start of GCES suffocated us like a blanket – it was everywhere. It dawned on me that in Toronto I had never once talked to parents about exam results. Kids graduated high school with a percentage average grade across all subjects. What’s more you couldn’t graduate unless you had accrued a certain number of volunteer hours as this was considered as important as any academic subject. All exams were marked internally and were just seen as something that happened as part of school – parent’s didn’t get involved.
My son, even though he threw himself into all that Toronto had to offer, is glad to be home. He is laid back about gcses – walking into school on the first day of term in year 10 and choosing his options there and then based on what he thought he would enjoy most. At parent’s evening the teacher’s told us they are delighted with how he has settled back in. His knowledge base is extensive and his ability to make connections is amazing. In fact, that is the problem. He needs to limit his answers to the question – it is all about exam technique if he wants to do well. I could have cried. My daughter has settled well and is doing fine. A spark has gone out though, and instead of seeing herself as a creative individual with unique talents she see’s herself as one of the crowd who needs to fit in.
Despite all his struggles about going in the first place, and his happiness at being back, my son summed up the difference between the UK and Canadian education system perfectly:
“Mum in the UK its all about being the best but in Toronto it was all about doing your best”.
No wonder the children who can’t be the best (how can they possibly all be?) feel so stressed and anxious or disaffected. And guess what? Canada beats the UK hands down on the international Pisa league tables for academic excellence.