A retired High Court Judge once shared with my husband that, when he arrived at his senior school over seventy years ago, he was asked, “What would you like to learn?”
How fabulous! And how far from today’s reality. In our modern, western, individualistic society, the individuality of children is being suppressed. In the late 19th century, when some of the greatest scientists were at school, science wasn’t even on the syllabus. Nowadays every schoolchild in England is required to take at least two GCSE examinations in science.
Standardised tests a waste
In fact, historically, most high-achieving individuals have learnt what they have in their field of endeavour outside of the classroom. Thomas Edison, Charles Dickens, Albert Einstein and Coco Chanel are just a few of them. “We have all learned most of what we know outside school,” wrote Ivan Illich in Deschooling Society. That continues to be the case: take Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg and Elizabeth Holmes.
If a young person genuinely has a passion for a subject, the GCSE in that subject is a dalliance with it at best, and a waste of time at worst. These are harsh criticisms. But just think of all the hours in the classroom, the homework, the after-school revision classes, the teacher’s time and effort – in order to get children to memorise a few things, repeat them briefly in an exam, then promptly forget them all. What a waste. I am genuinely astonished by the knowledge our 9-year-old has gleaned at home and on the hoof; I often ask him stuff.
National Curriculum stifles individuality
The National Curriculum – whether by design or accident – stifles individuality when it specifies so particularly the knowledge base and academic development of every child. Wrote Illich again,
“In schools we are taught that valuable learning is the result of attendance; that the value of learning increases with the amount of input; and, finally, that this value can be measured and documented by grades and certificates.”
The 1988 Education Reform Act, responsible for the curriculum monster, was instigated by Margaret Thatcher’s government (although it has been alleged she declared that all she wanted was the 3Rs).
“The National Curriculum which resulted from the Act was written by a government quango: teachers had virtually no say in its design or construction. It was huge and therefore unmanageable, especially at the primary level, and its introduction resulted in a significant drop in reading standards. It divided the curriculum up into discrete subjects, making integrated ‘topic’ and ‘project’ work difficult if not impossible. But perhaps the most damaging outcome of it was that it prevented teachers and schools from being curriculum innovators and demoted them to curriculum ‘deliverers’.”
~ Gillard D (2011) Education in England: a brief history
Excessive peer pressure
However, the erosion of individuality goes beyond academics. Schools define acceptable behaviour, establishing the peer pressure which oppresses those who do not conform to social norms and trends. This pressure on children to take refuge in a catch-all identity hinders them, in the most formative moments of their lives, from understanding themselves. It’s a case of identity theft.
Increasingly, a huge proportion of home-educated children are these very children: withdrawn from school by parents who have watched them bullied to within an inch of their emotional lives, or reduced to trend-following automatons. On the whole, home-educated children are striking in their non-conformity, not as a deliberate act of defiance to the system, but as a natural expression of their individuality. They’re weird.
Boys wear their hair long, and their clothes with interesting style. Girls go make-up free and wear the clothes they feel like – clashing colours, layers upon layers, creative, vintage, handmade. Frugal is fashionable; after all, we’re making do with one income remember. They might be able to name the X-Factor finalists, or follow Premiership football, or keep up with the private lives of chart-topping musicians. Or they might not. And frankly, who cares.
Sadly the practice of identification with a group for the purposes of ontological security is so thoroughly endemic that it stays with most schoolchildren decades after they have left school. There’s hardly a schooled adult who can’t look back at their schooldays and see that they were (to some extent) bullied, or (to some extent) a bully. It is also one of the diseases of modern politics, whose participants parrot wholesale the assertions of their leaders. Apparently a triumph for the party is a triumph for them, even if they sold their soul en route.
A different way
There may be a way to operate schools differently, so as to avoid these tragedies. Smaller schools offer some hope. Home education also offers a different way. It allows the chance for children and young people to develop their understanding of themselves, for better or worse. It values the opportunity for them to form their own opinions. And, above all, it preserves and restores honest identity to children who otherwise might have it stolen from them.