What Do You Know About Education?

What Do You Know About Education?

I am guessing that, most likely, you went to school yourself and have memories from this time. You might also follow news articles related to education and have an opinion on the schooling that your child has received so far. When considering homeschooling, however, it helps to know your stuff. The majority of people have an ingrained herd mentality and struggle with others choosing alternative pathways because they simply do not have the information to understand the choice you have made and inherently, what we do not know, we feel threatened by. It is important to be straight with you at this point and state that there is absolutely no point wasting your breath trying justify yourself, or persuade others to grasp the significance of your decision to home educate. Either they want to know, or they don’t. What you can do though, is bring your own hackles down by giving yourself a fairly robust understanding of the educational options available to you, both within the school system and outside it. Knowledge is power.

Teaching gives you the inside scoop on education, for sure. But the thing is, anyone who knew me – myself included – was more than a bit surprised when I began teacher training back in 2008. I remember my mother eyeing me carefully, as if trying to figure out whether I had developed some kind of vocational Stockholm syndrome, before launching into rather cautious congratulations. And she was right. Becoming a teacher made no sense at all. I was a rule-breaker at school and the fact that I was academically able never stopped me being hauled into the Headmistress’ office for various deviant activities. On leaving school though, I struggled for a number of years to figure out who I was and what life was about (I guess that 15 years of being forced to swallow a system I despised had slapped a lot of the natural instinct out of me) and it was during this time that I applied to become a teacher; perhaps because, in an unstable time, it seemed like a steady job. Classic dependency theory. I actually met quite a few teachers who fit this profile. Very bright, rather lost, young adults. School hadn’t done much for them, either. I nevertheless emerged from the Institute of Education a semi-radicalised socialist, with a broad group of chain-smoking, fast-talking peers who wore platform trainers and talked loudly about ‘shaking up the system’ within education. Views which changed almost immediately once we entered the classroom, or more specifically, the politics of the school system and the constant shape-shifting that occurred under Michael Gove’s leadership (2010-2014) which left a string of student casualties and disillusioned teaching staff in its wake.

Looking back, I now realise that I taught for many years at one of the better London academies, although I hated it. Funnily enough though, my distaste for working on the factory floor of this gigantic testing machine had zero impact on my ability to succeed in this environment and I found myself quickly promoted to middle management. True to my nature, it was on the day that I was offered the job as Head of English – after a grueling interview process – that something clicked with me and I baulked, refused the post, fell pregnant with my first child, and began working part-time, which felt a bit better. Many of the best colleagues I worked with also left during this time to become bakers, tshirt designers and local coffee shop baristas; anything rather than teaching. I remember applauding them all in the staffroom on their final days. The atmosphere was electric. This was a period of time when a staggering one in four newly qualified teachers left the profession within a year and when, parallel to this mass exodus, the government had turned school leadership structures against their own staff, encouraging Heads to use pay cuts and other disciplinary measures to combat staff striking in response to the toxic educational reforms taking place. Schools became warzones and, unsurprisingly, those who rose quickly to positions of authority during this time were often little more than willing attack-dogs for unscrupulous policy-makers. And it was, after all, a disaster. With the UK still languishing well outside the top 10 for science and, quite shockingly, outside the top 20 for reading and mathematics in global Pisa test scores for 2018, we might well ask ourselves what exactly it was all for. At around this time, I remember handing in my resignation after the birth of my second child, and feeling overwhelmingly that this was not what I wanted for my own children; that there had to be a better way. And there is. 

The trouble with school is that it is very good at getting large numbers of children to follow rules and complete an endless conveyor belt of activities, but it’s not so good at getting anyone to think for themselves. Take the COVID-19 pandemic, for example. The world has been brought to a virtual standstill by a killer virus and for almost everyone in every line of work, the role has changed and is suddenly quite different, or no longer exists. My own children have started listening to the radio a bit more and following TED-ed talks on how the immune system works. They ask me questions that I sometimes don’t know the answer to. Nobody does. And at the same time, I was video calling my sister in law last week, who is firmly in the pro-school camp (I wish there weren’t camps). ‘But Anna,’ she told me one evening, both of us sipping wine and watching the news anxiously from our separate bunkers. ‘The school has been an absolute lifeline for us during this time. Every day, the kids have worksheets to complete and online lessons to follow. Plus there’s spelling and reading books. Just this morning, for example, it was algebra, then a book review, then…’ I wasn’t listening by that point, so I’m afraid I can’t tell you what came after the book review. My feeling was that she was missing the point; not just about school, but also what was actually happening in the world.

Paternalism is a theoretical concept whereby either individual or group autonomy is limited, notably with the intention of promoting their own good. Sound familiar? I honestly didn’t see it until I stepped out of the education system altogether and observed how homeschooling works, but now I feel a certain unease when I look at the micro-management of children’s thinking and daily schedules within state education. There is, I would argue, a short sightedness in the practise of timetabling children’s lives from age 5 (or younger) through to 18. Moreover, the concept of the classroom teacher as the source of all knowledge is, in itself, problematic. Both issues raise the question of independence of thought and, importantly, are concerns which schools themselves are aware of and, even during my time in the classroom, have tried and failed to address. The difficulty is, of course, that the notion of self-directed learning is admirable, but almost impossible to harness when dealing with large numbers of children with vastly differing skill sets and academic ability levels. Again here, the industrial model of education is failing, as with radically reduced class sizes and more investment in teaching staff to cover this structural shift, schools could get some traction on a pedagogical approach which even those at the top know to be valuable. 

It is precisely this lack of autonomy and real engagement in the learning process that is at the root of the issue with the school model, making the old revolving door analogy – albeit funny – painfully close to the truth. First proposed by Postman and Weingartner in 1969, The Vaccination Theory of Education presents the idea we ‘take’ a subject or lesson at school and, once we have ‘had’ a subject, we are immune to it and need not take it again. This resonates with my own experience, both as a student and as a teacher. There is little depth to be covered in 6 weeks’ unit study, yet how many of us would consider ourselves – and our children – ‘done’ with a topic at the end of term? How many of us washed our hands of several subjects after we sat public exams at sixteen and eighteen and, now, recall very little of what we spent years studying? We haven’t kept learning alive for ourselves because we consider our own education something that was delivered, rather than actively sought. We have ‘taken’ Maths and now we are done with it. The implicit limitations that this approach forms in the mental horizons of our children and young adults is worrying, especially given the real need for radical creativity to find solutions in modern times. No wonder that motivation – or lack of it – is a constant challenge for parents and educators alike when the natural foraging of childhood curiosity is almost immediately curbed by school and information is thenceforth delivered in ready-made units, like takeaway. It is a diet which, ultimately, creates lethargy. And yet this is, quite understandably, how we approach processing large numbers of people through a highly prescriptive curriculum, with the end goal being to achieve a certain percentage on an exam paper. Because, make no mistake, that is what the aim of school has been for a long time and no amount of lip service to enrichment or life skills comes even close to deviating the educational conveyor belt from this course.

School is a mass exercise in crowd control where information is broken down to the simplest, most digestible form; driving young people of all shapes and capabilities through the same square hole. (Poor square! What’s wrong with a square, anyway? It could be any shape you like.) The reason why home educators are so relaxed about the notion of public exams, is because they don’t really place much value on them. Wait. Take a moment to absorb that. I think I just mentioned that most home educating families don’t even think about public exams until their children are at least into their teenage years, at which point they might – might – begin helping their child to find out which certificates he or she would like to take and when. Exams are not the purpose of education in this context; they are something your child may choose to complete as a way of moving towards a goal or interest. The enjoyment of History isn’t defined by what’s likely to be on the exam paper that year. Nor is it considered a ‘subject’ in itself, because History alone intersects with almost all other subject areas, from Literature to Chemistry; something which comes naturally to home educating families but which, from my memory of teaching, was reduced to a few forced topic shares across departments, mostly for the purpose of waving the ‘now, please piss off’ flag to senior leadership rather than genuinely exploring an exciting cross-curricular link with students. So, for homeschoolers, exams can do one. They are a means, not an end. And something which most parents and children are taught to spend almost the whole of secondary school working towards and preparing for, is simply not considered a ‘thing’ in the world of homeschooling. Which is an absolute game-changer for your child, emotionally and intellectually. Think about it.