Criticism of schools is nothing new. People have been complaining about the inhumanity of boarding schools ever since they were first created, and most people have questioned the efficacy of one aspect or another of the schools that they themselves attended at some time in their lives. This has led to innumerable attempts to devise new and better systems of education for our children, but the school system keeps rolling on, becoming more all-encompassing for each new generation, rather than less.
The problem is that schools, technology, and the way that we live and work, have evolved together, and are now inextricably linked. For most of human history, for most people, schools either did not exist at all, and in civilisations that did have schools, only a small minority of children ever went to them. However, in 1700s Europe the role of school took on a new form, and ever since then school has gained in significance for each successive generation. For my parents’ generation, for example, it was still possible for teenagers who left school with a simple school-leaving certificate to find their way into professions such as law and accountancy; and there were apprenticeships available for young people who gained no school-based qualifications at all, allowing them to become skilled craftspeople. By the time I went to school, much of that had changed; the eleven-plus exam was seen to be something that determined your rest-of-life chances, if you passed, you went to grammar school and had a chance of going to university, which at that time almost guaranteed a well-paid, middle-class job; if you failed, you went to secondary-modern school, with no obvious route open to into any of the well-paid professional jobs. Since then, the trend has continued, children start school earlier, and stay on for longer, employment prospects for teenagers are getting less and less all the time, and some form of further education is almost obligatory. Almost all forms of employment, access to credit, housing, and social status have now become closely linked to qualifications gained via the education system.
In this environment, things become very difficult for anyone trying to start any sort of alternative school that seeks to pursue a different curriculum from the mainstream, and does not focus on examination success. If pupils are drawn from reasonably-well-off middle-class families, they soon start to ask the teachers why they are not being taught the things that are necessary for success in the modern world. In my experience, this pupil-based criticism intensifies from one year to the next as pupils become more and more aware that their school is deviating from the norm. Very few teachers are able to deal with this criticism, and, no matter what principles inspired the original idea behind the school, the temptation is to simply coach children to pass exams, albeit, perhaps, in a slightly more friendly atmosphere than that available in other, less elite, establishments.
On the other hand, if children are drawn from a wider spectrum, then financing will automatically become the major problem, because low-income families cannot afford school fees, and, as a result, there will not be money available to pay the teachers. The pupils still want to know why they are being made to go to school and if their school years are going to be the route to a good job, and, in addition, point out that if their teachers are poor, then the school is not likely to be able to help them to earn a living.
Another major problem is the pre-conceived idea that we all have (probably due to our own schooldays) of how teaching should be conducted. We automatically believe that things have to be explained to children, that they have to listen, and that they have to respect the agenda set by the person who has taken on the teaching role. In mainstream schools, the fact that this method of teaching is ineffective is not an immediate problem: the teacher stands up and talks, most of the children find a way of letting it pass over their heads, very little is learnt, but it does not matter, because a uniform level of failure has been established, and underachievement replicated across the whole education system. Children put up with it, because they know that everyone else is being subjected to the same thing, and, therefore, assume that it is normal. In addition, there are systems in place to deal with children who do not, or cannot, conform – psychologists, social workers, suspension, expulsion, special schools, etc. – and when children see their classmates being subjected to corrective measures, they are further encouraged to simply do what they are told, and not complain. However, in an alternative teaching environment this back-up system is not available; anyone trying to employ the standard stand-at-the-front-of-the-room-and-explain-things teaching method soon has to confront the fact that their pupils are not learning anything.
This can be a particular difficulty in a home-schooling environment: children tell their parents to stop using a ‘teachery voice’, break down in tears when a parent tries too hard to make them learn something, or simply demand to be allowed to go to school, where at least they are able to merge in with a class of children who are all underperforming.
Added to this, people are generally quite young when they become parents, and, as such, have not had time to come to an appreciation of the full extent of the various deficiencies in their own education. This can put them in the situation of not knowing what to teach their children, nor how to teach it, but still believing that, with a little imagination on their part they can start a new sort of school or form a home-schooling group that will work smoothly and with which their children will be perfectly happy.
Thus, most attempts to improve upon school, or to avoid school, though well-meaning, have run into difficulties, for similar reasons. In the absence of a mechanism to learn from other people’s mistakes, successive generations of parents that would like to offer their children something better, fall into the same traps as their predecessors.
Meanwhile, the school system itself has continued on its path of becoming more coercive, more reliant on a standardised curriculum, more focussed on examinations, assessments, and qualifications, and more centralised. More than ever, its justification is that if you want to get a good job when you are older, then you have to do well at school.
Efforts to create a more child-friendly alternative to school have tended to involve modifying the curriculum, or the teaching environment, keeping a child at home altogether, increasing the teacher to pupil ratio, or modifying the decision-making processes in a school.
What is required is an educational programme that sets our current economic model in a wider perspective, from the outset. Whilst the importance of being able to earn a living should definitely be acknowledged, a child’s education should also give them an understanding of the relative unimportance of the man-made world when compared to the universe as a whole.