Two things are making me sad about the state of school education this week: firstly this news that home educators will be forced to “register annually with their local authorities, submit learning plans and undergo regular inspections. If they fail the inspections they could be made to send their children to school.” (There is more criticism from Education Otherwise and others here.)
The child protection expert who compiled the report said: “At the age of eight they should be reasonably autonomous learners, competent in handling numbers, with rudimentary ICT levels and able to read.”
The second thing that made me sad was this article about Holland Park Comprehensive, where Michele Hanson returns to the school she taught in in the seventies. What used to be a radical comprehensive is now an Ofsted star, getting fantastic results, but as Michele Hanson put it: It feels creepily sterile and rather too rigorous, controlled and driven. Pupils and teachers seem nervous and frightened. Is this what the new academies are aiming for? Are children really a “product” that needs to be measured and “manipulated”?
Well, it seems like they are.
I was home educated for a year, and I learned a lot of stuff then. But one of the most important lessons I learned was when I returned to school after a year. I was nine, and I remember vividly the horrible realisation that 70% of school is not about teaching you stuff, but about training you to be obedient, non-disruptive and placidly, mindlessly bored. I had become accustomed to doing the tasks my mother set me by one o’clock, and having the rest of the day to myself. And they were serious, structured learning tasks – my mother was already very involved in pre-school education, and later trained as a primary school teacher. I had to readjust to a system in which I spent the whole day ostensibly learning, but in fact achieved less that I had done in half a day at home.
Why was that? It was due to the time spent in mindless discipline-related activities. You’ll keep walking backwards and forwards from the assembly hall until we can do it in perfect silence. You’ll wait fifteen minutes before starting story time because children (nine-year-olds!) keep laughing. When I enter the classroom, you must all stand up. When I raise my hand, you must all fall silent immediately. If you don’t do this first time, you will practise it until you get it right. This isn’t education. This is training for employment. And not just employment, but alienated employment in a capitalist system, in which no one questions the system and everyone is prepared to confirm as closely as possible to the requirements of the employer, sacrificing their own individuality and sense of self in order to do so.
There is a kind of home schooling where the parents decide that life is learning, and so what the children do is left entirely up to them. If I had the power, this is what all education would be like. A certain amount of structure as far as the absolute basics – reading, writing and arithmetic – are concerned, but other than that, imagine the education system as a collective of optional workshops, led by people who are enthusiastic about what they are teaching. Liberating not just for the children, but also for the teachers, who would be free to teach the things they really loved and were interested in.
And that is what makes great teaching: the idea that you are approaching a subject out of love, of fascination, out of the desire to share the interest you already have. Not teaching to the test, learning by rote the points which the examiner is looking for, keeping silence in the classroom. Not making explicit the absolute unimportance of the child’s experience and the absolute importance of the exhaustively delineated requirements of the examining boards.
Of course this idea of education is utopian. But when I was smaller there were lots of teachers who could teach what they were interested in and loved, and they were the teachers who I remember most. The national Curriculum was in its early days then, and I don’t recall such targeted teaching-to-the-test as Michele Hanson describes: “What point are you making for the examiner? You’re demonstrating your range of vocabulary.” Words like big and fat are “too simple; [they’ll] get you no marks at all”.
With home education becoming more circumscribed, and school education having any life sucked out of it by Ofsted and the results league tables, it’s sad that there’s less and less space for child-driven learning, but also less and less space for inspiring teaching.
(On a more cheerful note, here is a brilliant blog written by a home educating mother about life with her triplet daughters. It’s so funny and delightful, and makes me more and more convinced that if I could afford to, I would homeschool.)