The Value of the Things They Learn
Have you ever asked yourself what is the purpose of education? Or had a conversation with your son or daughter, whom you bundle off to school each morning as part of your daily routine, about the value of the things they learn and the ways in which they learn them?
Three years ago I decided to become a teacher – a teacher of English, to be precise. To date I have spent a year training in South Wales, a year teaching in a State Comprehensive High School on the Isle of Wight, and a year teaching at a small democratic school in Devon called Sands School. Over this period I have been constantly asking myself these questions, but it is only in the last few weeks that I have felt I that am beginning to approach anything like a satisfactory answer.
Why am I a teacher? After leaving University I had a variety of jobs, ranging from shop assistant to recruitment consultant, but ultimately all of them left me dissatisfied. I wanted to inspire and be inspired, to stimulate and be stimulated. It sounds like something of a cliché, but I wanted a job where I could feel I was making a difference. I myself went to a state comprehensive school, and had always been interested and academically able, so I figured that the best way to make use of my talents was to go back into that environment. I had been inspired as a youth by several teachers: maybe I could inspire others. So I enrolled on a PGCE course, jumped through a series of government-imposed hoops for a year, and finally took up my first position at the afore-mentioned Isle of Wight High School.
It is difficult to relate my experiences of my first teaching position without sounding negative to the point of utter dissent. I did not enjoy it. But I will try, for the purpose of this article, to remain as objective as possible. After all, the reason it was such a difficult time for me, was that the whole regime simply did not suit my personality. And herein lies the crux of the issue.
The traditional school system, as I see it, works on the principle of uniformity. It assumes that what is good for one is good for all. As a consequence of this assumption, the financial constraints and the sheer number of people involved, it has to offer a ‘best fit’ scenario. In order to work effectively it is necessary to have rules covering every aspect of school life; all students must adhere to them or face unpleasant consequences, usually involving curtailment of freedom.
It is also necessary to construct a hierarchy, to assume that there is an inherent inequality between people, and to set up opposition between staff and students, and even between staff members of different levels of experience and expertise.
All of this is necessary to keep the machine in good order. That is what the state school system is - a machine. Head teachers own the machines and have overall responsibility for their output; teachers are the labourers; administrators are the maintenance crew; pupils are the commodities produced; GCSEs and A-levels are the packaging which demonstrates the relative worth of the product and gives it a market value. Without this packaging the commodity cannot be sold.
Despite my cynical rhetoric, I do not want it thought that I oppose the conventional system and everything that it stands for. I understand that it is a very effective system for many people – that many people need a structure in their lives that tells them exactly where they should be and what they should be doing at all times – and that it prepares young people very well for certain aspects of life outside education. The main problem I have with it is that it works on the assumption that everybody’s needs develop at more or less the same age and in more or less the same way. It is a system which denies individuality, and which denies the fact that people develop at different rates and in different ways. Why does our society assume that unless people pass at least five GCSEs when they reach age sixteen, they are not yet ready for the ‘real world’, or are somehow inferior to the moral majority? A friend of mine left school at sixteen with two GCSEs, feeling like a failure. Last year, aged twenty-nine, he passed his law degree with second class honours and is now working in the legal department of a highly reputable investment bank. He is one of the lucky ones: for many of the young people who do not fit comfortably into society’s normal expectations, the notion that they have failed can be very damaging indeed. And not just for them, but for future generations too. Why must we perpetuate this myth that a piece of paper is the be-all and end-all of our academic careers? Surely there is more to education than that.
At Sands School we do things quite differently. Firstly, we are a democratic school. That is to say that we have no head teacher, staff members have exactly the same rights as the students, and all decisions concerning life in the school are made by democratic process at the weekly school meetings. Issues are raised, and solutions sought by staff and students alike.
Secondly, we encourage our students to learn at their own pace. We do currently have a formal timetable, and we do teach to GCSE. Both of these structures are in place because the students and their parents want them (they too believe the myth!). The difference is that we do not coerce students into class; they come because they want to, or because they are ready to learn. We have no bells telling us where to be at any given time, and we have no punishments for people who are not attending class.
The third principal difference at Sands is that the emphasis is not on academic achievement, but on the happiness of the individual. That is not to say that we don’t value academic success – it is possible to study for eleven GCSEs, though most of our students aim for six to eight – it is more a belief that it is not until young people are happy and emotionally comfortable within themselves, that they are ready to pursue self-actualisation. Many of our students (by no means the majority) come to us already damaged by their experiences in mainstream schools. They may have been bullied because they didn’t fit in with society’s perceived norms (either academic or social); they may have been asked to leave because of their inability to abide by the imposed rules and structures, or their refusal to do so; they may simply have been ignored or lost within the system, consequently suffering a detrimental effect on their already fragile self-confidence. In the space of just one year as a teacher at Sands I have witnessed several students enter the school extremely shy, insecure, neurotic, with a distinct lack of their own sense of worth. Within weeks they have transformed themselves into happy, confident, sociable young people. Their individuality is embraced, rather than ridiculed. They have little to rebel against, and so begin to take responsibility for their own development. Because we are a small school (about 65 students currently on roll), we are able to offer the individual attention that many young people need.
I am not saying that Sands School is a panacea for all of society’s ills. I am not even saying that we are the solution for everybody – there are some students who do not thrive in our non-coercive environment, who need authority to guide them. The point is that we offer an alternative.
Sands School is one of a very small, but growing network of democratic schools around the world. We have to charge fees because the government continues to insist that there is only one right way: their way. The majority of our society accepts this because we are all products of the same machine, but surely education is primarily for the benefit of the individual. Its purpose is to empower us, to give us the tools we need to be able to improve our lives. There must be far greater benefits to society from happy, constructive individuals than there would be from mass-produced conformists, or, indeed, from mass-produced rebels. We must take control of our future and the future of our children. We need an alternative.