What’s the Point of School?

I love the work I do in schools. Being able to stand in front of a cohort of students, be it a class, year group or whole school and introduce them to the possibilities of their world after school is nothing short of priceless. Challenging paradigms about their lives and having my own paradigms being challenged, by some incredible young minds is amazing too.

I love being able to talk to teachers. Those who are so passionate about the extent at which they can encourage critical thinking, problem solving and perpetuate a life time of learning for those under their care. My admiration stretches even further when I see that they have to do this in spite of the ever shifting governmental targets, league tables, OFTSED investigations and having to manage behaviour of students. And sometimes parents.

When we cut to the chase though what is the point of school? Is it just a holding space for children to keep them off the streets? Is it a perpetuation of the class system where those who can afford it go to the best guaranteeing them certain life chances and others get lumped into new shiny buildings which curiously resemble prisons? Is it about passing exams? Preparation for future work? Here are my few thoughts.

A Lifelong Desire to Learn
When we look at the history of education and schooling in the western world, it was primarily designed for those who could afford it to learn as wide and deep as possible and the those who couldn’t as a means of preparing them for simple manual labour. However if we take education back to its roots, the earliest science of education, or pedagogy as it is commonly referred to was literally about being able to lead a child. I love that definition and in many ways I think this should be the core of schooling. We teach young people either directly in lessons or through the influence of outside agencies and speakers to be able to think and adapt to situations. To not only have a desire to appreciate the different viewpoints as to how the world works through science, but also to analyze, problem solve and critically think through things, to learn about cooperation and teamwork, to give room for them to express and explore new thinking and to be able to communicate that through oracy, art, dance, sport and the written word.

It is by no accident that those teachers along with my parents who encouraged me to read deep and wide have inspired that life long desire to read new things, explore new opportunities and travel. Or learning to paint and draw in different styles in art, just for the heck of it. I think this should be the first point of school. Institutional or home.
That desire to learn and not only for passing exams.

Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
My second purpose for schooling is the application of knowledge. Students are forever asking me what the point of Maths, English and RE are. I usually tell them to problem solve, to be able to structure and express themselves through literacy and finally to think wider and and in consideration of others. Understanding the knowledge of core subjects is all well and good but it has to be relevant and students need to be able to apply. Of course in the grand scheme of things many of us will probably never have use for quadratic equations but what the subject teaches us is that there is more than one way to an answer given a formula and a number of variables.

I often wondered why when I had school options teachers could not explain why such a subject was one I had to choose. Each teacher of a subject should be selling the heck out of it (I know it sounds crass but follow me) where they can explain to students why they are so exciting about teaching it. What makes them so passionate about maths, philosophy, french or art?
They should be able to demonstrate how it makes a difference in life. For example art for autistic children as a form of therapy. Maths as a foundation or engineering or gaming? Languages as a means of bridging division and building community. The list is endless.

Exam testing should be one but not the main area of students being able to demonstrate this. Given the current governments focus on “rigour” and final exams the danger is that the wider picture of this may be missed again. Or rigour mortis to the joy of education. Did you see what I did there?

My third and final purpose for school should be that of citizenship. Given that betwix the ages of 5 and 16 at least thirty five hours a week is spent at school, and not including after school clubs, a certain underlying thread of citizenship is at the heart of schooling. How do I treat those who are different from me? How can I learn from my community as a whole? How should I conduct myself as young man or woman in and out of school? What options are there for me to use my talents and skills once I move on from school?

The main vehicle n many schools for this is PHSE, Personal Health Social and Economic Education and Citizenship classes. Personally I would prefer if somehow the thinking on this was embedded across subjects in the curriculum. A general approach to those students who study the core subjects before choosing their options and then a further deeper debate once they are in year 10 and 11. Examining history as a whole instead of some kind of patriotic rehashing for an exam. Or discussing the ethical impact of abortions in biology alongside knowing what a zygote was. Granted such thinking would require a bit of an overhaul in an already steam rolled curriculum but for all the complaints made about teachers and students leaving school, a healthy preparation for teens as present and future citizens.

As an educator passionate about helping students choose their future I think it is important for teachers to be aware of where the learning of a subject could impact a students career choices and have that complimented by a careers advisor, or as they do in a number of other countries having a school counsellor who could coordinate this.

Of course there are various reasons as to why schools exist. For me these are three core. I share my vision with parents, educators and students. In a sense it is something that my Dad shared with me many years back in not so many words. I do believe that when all those who are affected by schools get a common positive vision of what school is about it makes it so much easier. Granted that some students are just not cut out for mainstream school and the way it is designed, but the principles remain the same.

Would love your thoughts?


One thought on “What’s the Point of School?

  1. Although I think you make a great argument about all these skills we learn through our education, the problem is -from a student’s point of view- the most important thing I have learnt is how to memorise a bunch of stuff. Only to forget them as soon as the exam is over. Ok education has helped with socialisation skills and you get the odd days when the school focuses on ‘job interview skills’. But the fact is that there is too much obsession with getting the best grades. The worst of it is when some teachers have no faith in a student and repeatedly tell them that they are going nowhere fast, instead of encouraging them to do better. I have witnessed so many of my friends not reaching for their aspirations because on so many occasions they have been told they are not good enough. Of course I want to get the best grades I can but with all the stress and pressure to achieve the school’s target, you begin to lose the passion and love for the subject. Education should be about all the things you mentioned but frankly it seems to have lost its touch. Signed- an A level student and believer in education.

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