Speak to most parents and there will be a general consensus: the way we teach our children is at best imperfect, at worst damaging. Many parents see their kids getting stressed to tears revising for exams of indiscernible purpose, coming home from school tired and uninspired. Protest it, lament it, accept it.
But mention alternative education and the reaction is mixed. Responses range from rising anger, like you’ve told them the way that they recycle is all wrong, to smiling and backing away, like you’ve just mentioned that you’ve joined a cult. If you talk about a different way to educate, aren’t you implicitly making a judgement call on others who aren’t talking about it? What wisdom must you have to challenge the system we all went through? How do you convince people you haven’t joined a cult?
Under the bewitchment of a societal Stockholm syndrome we begrudgingly insist that our kids go through the same bullshit we all did, as some kind of rite of passage, and even claim that it has to be supported because of socialism. The comprehensive school system isn’t socialist, it’s teen Darwinism. We’re all busy, we haven’t got the time to spare, so nothing changes. Browbeaten acceptance, indicative of the modern age, reads “it’s too difficult to change, so don’t bother”.
That’s our message to our young people?!
Where’s our fervour and our fury? Where’s our perseverance? Where is that romantic spirit that once made us strive to reshape the world?
Speak to teenagers about education and you find some very interesting opinions. Some hate school. Others love it. Most are indifferent. Some want more freedom to focus on the things they’re passionate about. Others focus on collecting GCSEs like they’re Pokemon. One 15 year old I spoke to recently said that he’d change only one thing about school: do away with year groups. Has he been reading the same books as me?
Two secondary school students, independent of each other, told me that they don’t think teenagers can be trusted to make the best decisions for themselves. Why? Whose to say what’s “best”? Whose to say that what’s “best” isn’t the young person being allowed to make the worst decision for themselves? Who’s feeding them this line? If a person feels that they aren’t trusted, then it is no surprise that they would consider themselves and their peers untrustworthy. I don’t believe for a second that children can’t be trusted. Moreover, I think that denying children the right to make a bad decision for themselves is leaving them completely unequipped for adulthood.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better”
from Worstward Ho, Samuel Beckett
Most teenagers, by the time they leave secondary school, are institutionalised, nervous to speak up or stand out from the crowd, risk averse and controllable. That outcome was a good fit for the industrial age, when the administration of bureaucracy required uniformity of intellects across the world. I think we all know that world is in it’s epilogue. The future economy is going to look very different. So why are we teaching children how to operate in a world that won’t exist by the time they leave school? Why are new developments in neuroscience regarding the development of the teenage brain and how we learn in general not being considered? What is the point of this education system? Because it certainly doesn’t appear to have the students as its core concern.
I’ve heard so many stories about young people being told by their school not to sit certain GCSEs because they are projected lower than a C grade; so the schools stats come before the student. Kids spend the majority of their waking childhood in school. Surely any school’s first duty should be the well-being and emotional stability of it’s students. Instead we have a system that is insidiously disinterested to many pupils’ successes, operating in drab, dilapidated environments we as adults would not stand for.
In close analysis the defining aspects of a mainstream school are undeniably problematic. Beyond class sizes and standardised testing (the two most regularly punted political footballs in the educational forum), the way we divide children by age and ability, the rigidity of a school timetable, the austere homogeny of prescriptive curricula, the endless administrative duties of teachers, the stifling of their enthusiasm and flexibility, the suppression of the arts, and most crucially the lack of choice for students shows that this system is not working well.
And it shows. With the 5th highest GDP in the world, our little country comes in at 27th place in Maths according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). 22nd in reading. 15th in science. And whilst clearly we should take these stats with a pinch of salt (how are these assessments made? testing!) there is no skirting around the fact that we are underperforming.
So what is there to be done? There are schools out there that are doing things differently: democratic schools (where the students get an equal say to the teachers in the running of the school and get to choose which lessons they go to), Human Scale schools (that put a focus on the environment and society of the school), Steiner (with its holistic ways). I mean, it’s by no means a new idea that children should be educated carefully, with openness and creativity. There have been many brilliant teachers and educationalists, who have written pedagogies and taught students with solely their development at concern, over centuries. At the latest count there are around 25 trillion Ted talks on education. These ideas are accessible.
It is standing on the shoulders of these giants that I intend to create a new school in South Wales (free, with creative teachers, and a healthy disregard for rules and specifications) in the hope that it will produce sparklingly engaged young people, ready to take on the challenges of the future. Kids who are self-motivated, interested in crafting whatever they choose to the highest specification but more than anything else, a thirst to learn more. I hope that it will draw attention to the other fantastic schools that are scattered across the country, and show governments, authorities and parents that there is a better way of educating.
I may not be the most experienced person in this field but I am so passionate about education and it’s potential to ease the complications of future societies that I will work night and day to make this happen.
I’d love to hear from teenagers too. What would you change about your schooling? What does your dream school look like?
Thank you for reading. If you want to read further here’s a list of books I find inspiring, though I don’t agree with everything they say:
Educating Ruby: What our children really need to learn
by Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas, Crown House Publishing
Overschooled But Undereducated: How the crisis in education is jeopardizing our adolescents
By John Abbot, Network Continuum Education.
The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School
by Neil Postman, Vintage Books
Pedagogy of the Oppressed
By Paulo Freire, Penguin
Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling
By John Holt, Da Capo Press
Geographies of Alternative Education: Diverse learning spaces for children and young people
By Peter Kraftl, Policy Press
The Element: How finding your passion changes everything
By Sir Ken Robinson, Penguin
Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education
By John Dewey, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Summerhill School: A new view of childhood
By A.S. Neill, St Martin’s Press
Also some vids for your viewing pleasure:
RSA ANIMATE: Changing Education Paradigms (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U)
Sugata Mitra TED 2013: Build a School in the Cloud (https://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_build_a_school_in_the_cloud)
Sal Khan TED 2011: Let’s use video to reinvent education (https://www.ted.com/talks/salman_khan_let_s_use_video_to_reinvent_education#t-528576)
Eamon Fullalove DO Wales 2015: Light Fires In Young People That Won’t Burn Out (https://www.thedolectures.com/eamon-fullalove-/?rq=eamon#.W1EOMdhKgdU)