Back to school – new term, new start?
Although my annual timetable is no longer ruled by term time, I couldn’t fail to notice the last few weeks’ focus on getting ready for the new school year.
I can’t help thinking that our traditional approach to education is somehow out of step with the modern world.
Our whole education system is constructed around success or failure. Getting into the sports team, or being left on the benches. Being in the top set or staying behind for extra tuition.
Only last week we heard of a school who were threatening to remove students who were not expected to gain the right grades at ‘A’ level. Thankfully, they changed their policy.
There are a great many dedicated and gifted teachers striving to support their students through a system that only rewards success. Their career depends on the academic achievements of the children in their care, regardless of the added value they add in terms of life skills and self worth.
The rise in vocational qualifications is to be welcomed, but until these hold sufficient value as GCSE’s, ‘A’ levels and degrees, they will always be second-class options.
So, in my utopian school, what would I like to see?
English and Maths are important. We need to ensure that the next generation can communicate to a reasonable level in a way that suits them. Once they can read, they should be able to decide whether to tackle War and Peace or the cereal box – leave enough material around and those who want to read will. Force-feeding literature can turn people off for life.
We all need to be able to add up, subtract, divide and multiply. The most useful and practical way for this is by teaching budgeting which will be of much more value to most people than applied mathematics. Again, leave the gate open and if a child is interested in trigonometry or algebra, they will generally find a way to indulge their interest.
Beyond Maths and English. A good basic introduction to history, geography, science but not learning to pass exams, learning how to learn, how to find things out for ourselves and developing a passion for learning and growing.
We need to learn how to survive
Most importantly, though, we need life skills. We need to learn how to grow our own food, how to prepare and cook it. We need to learn how to run a house, fill a washing machine, empty the bins, clean a toilet, replace a light bulb, manage budgets and finances. We need to understand our physical and mental health and how we can keep ourselves healthy.
We need to learn the skills of use in the workplace – timekeeping, communication, how to get along with people we don’t like, how to resolve differences, how to raise concerns or complain, personal hygiene and appearance.
We need to learn about the damage mankind has done to the planet and what we must do limit it in future. We need to understand the value of nature – and the fact that without it, mankind will not survive.
Traditional education isn’t for everyone
I am always heartened to hear some of our highest achievers admit that their schooling didn’t ignite their passions. They were self-taught or knew someone equally passionate and learnt from them.
A very wise Head Teacher once told me that generally children will thrive or fail regardless of the school they attend, all the teachers can do is give the achievers more tools to work with and help others build a safety net.
She also told me that her mission was to find at least one thing that each child could do better than anyone else, whether that was schoolwork, sport or practical skills and celebrate that. The children who left her primary school were well balanced, well-educated and had huge self-belief.
I am not an education expert, and I do not wish to denigrate the wonderful work teachers and their teams do. I would like to see however a system that allows everyone the opportunity to be a success, and that rewards practical skills as highly as academic ones.
Find the spark, fan the flames
We are all different, with different strengths and weaknesses, and we should be able to celebrate this. Our education system should find the spark in everyone and fan those flames, embed self-belief and encourage everyone to find something they can do that makes them feel great about themselves.
Our society needs all sorts of skills, from practical ones such as building, farming, cooking, cleaning to ones that create wealth, banking, manufacturing, and ones that enrich our lives such as art, literature and music.
Everyone has something they are good at. We need an education system that will find that, nurture it and give everyone the tools to build a happy and fulfilling life. We need to focus on what makes our lives rich and meaningful, not what gives us the trappings of success.
If we can get the building blocks right for our children, then it is likely we will see far fewer instances of depression, mental ill health and teenage self-harm and suicide. We need to find an alternative way to educate and inform for the sake of our planet, mankind and our mental and physical health.