The School-Work-World problem
We can’t expect the next generation to change the world if we keep forcing them through the same grinder that created our wage-labour, consumer culture. The fundamental mental model of mainstream education is eroding our children’s freedom, agency and wellbeing. It will continue to do so until we reframe how we see children and what we believe the purpose of education to be.
Nine months ago, I picked up a book call ‘Free to Learn’ by Peter Gray.
Within five pages I could see how my work in untangling organisations and people’s relationships with work were intrinsically linked to our system of education.
And how the problems we’re experiencing in global society are at strongly influenced by the patterns and conditioning we develop through school.
My five-year-old son is in his second year of school, and already his education is becoming increasingly about what he’s achieving… and what he’s not.
He has wonderful teachers, and it’s a great school, but it’s very clear that in the next few years his sense of who he is in the world, and what it means to be working in it are going to be shaped by some fundamental beliefs that I believe to be truly damaging for him and society.
Education is one of those cool, zeitgeisty subjects, and it would have been very easy to jump up and start having conversations about new ideas and new projects.
But I knew I was completely clueless. I knew that I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. And I knew that there would be much that is working in the mainstream
So over the past nine months I’ve been researching and visiting alternative schools, interviewing their founders, speaking to ex-students and parents, and interviewing teachers — of mainstream institutions and independents.
This post is my attempt to capture what I’ve seen, how it relates to the societal problems we all want to address, and what some of the alternatives look like.
And with a few stories along the way from people I’ve met and interviewed.
…It’s 2pm on a Monday afternoon in 2015, in a classroom of 30 four and five year-olds.
The teacher has asked them gently but firmly to sit still and be quiet. For some of them it’s not too much of a problem, but for the majority it’s clearly tricky. For some it’s just impossible.
When one of them speaks out of turn or isn’t paying attention, the teacher tells them to be quiet and turn around.
If they do it repeatedly, the telling off becomes more stern, privileges are withdrawn and eventually their name will go on the ‘cloud’ on the board.
For those few that find it most difficult, I can see the sadness and disappointment on their faces as the teacher’s frustration turns on them once again.
Trying to get a group of very young children to sit in silence and pay attention is clearly unnatural and an exercise in futility.
It doesn’t help to blame the teacher — they have to manage 30 small bundles of energy in a 7mx7m classroom, for the majority of the day. They do an incredible job of it.
And even at this age, they have to make sure these small humans have attained certain levels of learning, in order to meet externally set targets. And this requires them to learn a degree of conformity and compliance.
But for some of these little humans, they’re also learning that to be themselves is not OK.
They’re learning that unless they conform, then the person they look to for safety and love will withdraw it, and they may be shamed in front of their friends.
And this is their introduction to school…
Let’s start with the problem with work
Over the past 15 years, I’ve worked with hundreds of businesses. I’ve facilitated, trained and coached thousands of people. I’ve supported social entrepreneurs in my local neighbourhood, senior leaders of Government departments and CEOs of insurance companies.
During that whole time, I’ve been on an inquiry — sometimes very conscious, often just led by my own experience and need to understand.
I’ve been asking: why does work seem to be such a problem for so many people?
And in every business I’ve been in, I’ve often seen many, if not all, of the following symptoms in their people and culture.
Unhappy, stressed out or ill and continuing work — even when they’re falling to bits or having mental breakdowns, I’ve seen people telling themselves that this is what work is about. It’s normal to not just dislike it, but for it to hurt. And the idea of stopping is just unthinkable.
Burning out with frantic busywork — I find whole organisations full of people trapped in emails and meetings, and writing reports that no one reads. Taking it home with them, filling nearly every minute of every day with things they’d rather not be doing, that often don’t seem to be helping anyone else. Driven by an urge — a sense that they *should* be doing more, a fear of falling behind, losing out or being disapproved of.
Not being able to make choices for themselves — I’d say a third of my living is from helping people that struggle to make decisions about their work and life, without outside direction. A third from helping businesses work out how to organise themselves when their people find it hard to make decisions without direction from an authority (person or process). The final third from helping authority figures who want to stop telling everyone what to do, but feeling unable to switch it off.
Approval-seeking/rebelling against authority —there is often a bi-polar relationship with leaders and power. When authority figures don’t give people attention or direction, they feel undervalued or lost. They look to the person in charge to provide validation and reassurance. Or it’s the opposite, looking for any opportunity to push back on anything that smells like direction or approval giving from the ‘person at the front’.
Constant striving for money or status —it’s very common for the focus of many people’s working lives to become the next pay rise, training certification or leap up the corporate ladder. They focus their effort on these external markers of success, only to find the satisfaction soon fades and they need another hit. Or worse, an opportunity doesn’t come up and they feel lost or frustrated. And in between the pay rises and promotions, a constant need for numbers, targets and milestones to reassure them that things are going OK.
Competition between colleagues — it’s amazing how much conflict you find between people that are working on the same team. Constantly anxious about and aware of what everyone else is doing, triggered by their achievements into asking: “What does that mean for me?” At its worst, I see people undermining each other and looking for opportunities to protect their position (formal or informal), using passive aggressive behaviours to do so.
Inability to deal with conflict — this conflict is rarely dealt with and sits in the background until the point it becomes damaging. Almost always I find that people will avoid dealing with conflict at all costs. They don’t have the toolkit or confidence that things will be ok, and just the idea of it ties them up in knots. So problems like competition between colleagues turn into intractable, longterm issues that make life miserable and damage people’s wellbeing at work.
Meaningless work — so many people do not believe in the work they’re doing. Many of us have accepted that employment is an exchange of money for tasks completed, and the idea that it should have purpose or meaning to it is either alien, or some first-world luxury. But the need for meaning is fundamental to human beings. With it, we can achieve anything, even survive Nazi death camps. Without it, a part of us withers and dies. We create things we don’t care about, find it impossible to make good decisions without lots of bureaucracy or direction, and find ourselves feeling empty or miserable.
Presenteeism — showing up at work because we have to. Mindlessly going through the motions, ticking boxes and only jumping through the hoops that we have to, in order to avoid disapproval or maintain social order.
This might sound terribly negative and judgemental of others, but I want to say this very clearly: not only have I experienced this nearly everywhere I go, but I lived this myself, and I still do.
I’m constantly fighting off the ‘busy fool’ who keeps me from my family, doing things for approval instead of for my own sense of what’s needed, hiding from conflict and dealing with the consequences — anxious thoughts, periods of feeling lost and depressed, and stress in my body.
…it’s Monday morning, Mark is14 years old and on his way to school.
He’s feeling despondent and a bit sick.
He can’t stand school but knows he has to go.
He finds it hard to fit in, he’s experienced low-level but persistent bullying and doesn’t find the lessons he has to sit through interesting or relevant.
When he tries to be a bit more interested in what’s being taught, the bullying worsens. When he drops out to fit in with my peers, he gets punished by the teachers.
He feels trapped, but he knows he has to go.
He’s starting to understand that learning is work and work is unpleasant, boring and unrewarding.
And work also is something he has to do even if he doesn’t want to. Even if it’s causing him to suffer.
He’s experiencing a compulsory education. And compulsory is another word for ‘forced’.
He’s stoned, as he is most days. And it’s not uncommon in his school for children to take drugs in class.
After all, if your reality is unbearable but not up for questioning, why wouldn’t you try to escape it in any way you could?
He trudges towards the school gates…
Yeah, so many people hate work — who cares?
These common problems that many of us have completely accepted, amount to a huge cumulative impact.
Seeing work as inevitable suffering leads to a world where mental illness is becoming almost the norm, our quality of life is vastly reduced, as is that of our relationships with our families (the World Health Organisation estimates that the number of people suffering from depression and anxiety rose by 50% between 1990 and 2013, costing the global economy US$1 trillion).
Producing things we don’t care about means a world built on products and services that we don’t need, and that are produced with little thought for their value to the world or their impact on our environment (small children, victims of slave labour, were likely to be involved in producing the raw materials for the device you are reading this on).
Viewing others as barriers to getting what we want — succeeding in our progress through the ranks or to our next pay rise — means a world of scarcity mindsets, where we automatically make other people the problem and shut them out, regardless of the consequences (millions of innocent people fleeing bombing, execution and rape, continue to be detained and refused asylum, while our media continue to demonise them).
Not being able to manage conflict means a society built on judgement and blame, where we’re scared to have the conversations that matter, and label those different to us as a potential threat to be demonised or avoided at all costs (the surprise decision to Brexit, the shock of Trump’s election and the continuing rise of the right across Europe point — in part — to a massive understanding gap across Western society).
Needing approval or direction in order to move forward means organisations struggling to adapt, and all of the frustration and stress that comes with that (not to mention job losses). But even more importantly, it leaves people outside of work lost in the world, constantly seeking direction or just giving up.
Frantically chasing external markers of success that never satisfy, instead of knowing and acting on you own needs leads to the burnout, stress, anxiety and depression mentioned above.
And ultimately to a life never fully lived.
Why does this matter to me?
There are two levels.
Global: we’re looking at a future with fewer jobs, where we’re at the sharp end of complex, systemic issues like climate change, population migration and globalisation. And a society that increasingly looks like it’s happy being wilfully ignorant and avoiding all responsibility by pinning the blame for everything we don’t like on other people. Leaving things to continue in the way that we have not only undermines our ability to navigate this future, I believe it’s a big part of how we ended up here. We have to break the cycle or things will continue to spiral.
Local: I’m responsible for bringing up two small human beings. I have a choice: do I want them heading the same route I went down, that will leave them with some of the same fundamental beliefs I and millions of others do? To spend years feeling anxious or stressed about work, and life. To feel unhappy in their own skin, afraid of conflict and doing jobs that leave them feeling frustrated, or empty? To spend years trying to unlearn what they have learned. No. Not really.
…Annabelle is 13. The most important thing to her right now is what’s going on with her friends.
She’s deeply frustrated in the classroom as she can’t see how any of what she’s learning is going to help her later in life.
The one lesson she ‘enjoys’ is PSHE, where they’ve been talking about money, paying rent and how to look after your health. It’s the one hour every week that she can link to her future life.
But, for the rest of the time she’s feeling deeply anxious.
She says she’s having panic attacks nearly everyday, thinking about her friend who’s self-harming but who refuses to talk to anyone about it.
The teachers get frustrated with her. She says she’s not surprised, there are at least three other girls in her class that say they suffer from the same thing.
There’s no-one she can talk to at school, and no space to talk about it in class. So, it never gets aired, and just keeps going round in her head…
What’s all this got to do with school?
OK, so it’s taking a while to get there. But stay with me.
If you haven’t already worked it out, that list of problems that are making our lives miserable and ultimately messing up our planet — you can find many of the roots of this in our model of education.
Sure, our parents and wider society have a part to play, but arguably there’s no saying where each part starts and ends.
School teaches us that learning is work, and work is pain.
Play happens in break time. Creativity happens in art.
Everything else, that’s the learning bit.
The bits you don’t like but you have to do.
And even though it’s boring, it’s compulsory. It’s forced.
You don’t find lessons interesting or relevant? Sorry, you have to go.
You’re being bullied every day? Sorry, you have to go.
Your teachers are unpleasant to you? Sorry, you have to go.
We learn that work is not optional, and should be painful.
School also teaches us that external validation is more important than anything else.
Which actually makes perfect sense in this context.
Because when you’re doing things you don’t enjoy, it’s impossible to make good decisions about them.
We can only make meaning from things that have meaning.
So we learn to do everything for teacher’s approval, that of our peers and parents, or for the marks in our exams.
And we learn that the better our marks, the more valued we are, and the more safe and secure our future will be.
Our ability to make choices for ourselves is stripped away, with nearly every moment of our day and year of our lives mapped out by a narrow curriculum and rigid timetable.
Segregated into same-age classes of 30 or more other humans, we compete for approval and try to exert power over each other (because it’s been taken away from us completely the moment we enter school).
Conflict is dealt with by adults, who punish us for falling out, so we very rarely learn to deal with it ourselves.
And in the endless cycle of exams, coursework, homework, we struggle to find the time and energy to do things that we really enjoy.
What we do enjoy becomes something we have to find time for outside of school. “You like art or drama so much? Good things to have as hobbies, don’t you think…?”
After 15 or so years of this, it’s no wonder we struggle our way through the world of work, which so conveniently mirrors many of the same conditions.
We kick what makes us feel creative and alive into our rapidly vanishing free time, until it becomes a distant memory.
The impact on our children
This continual erosion of children’s freedom and opportunities for play-based learning, is having a major impact on their mental health.
The more directed and structured our children’s lives are, the less sense of control they have over their own lives.
And it’s not simply about ‘play’ — that frivolous word that seems so divorced from the ‘real’ world of ‘work’.
It’s the shift from a focus on intrinsic goals to extrinsic. From what leaves me feeling satisfied, to what I think I need to feel safe — income, social status, material gains.
This toxic combination of loss of control (and therefore limited chances to learn about choosing what’s good for me) and a constant push towards goals and gains, is thought to be leading to an epidemic in anxiety and depression in our young people — 1 in 10 children aged 5–16 now suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder and the number of young people admitted to hospital due to self-harm has increased by 68% in the last 10 years.
We start our children so young on this path, and yet studies at the University of Cambridge indicate that beginning formal learning before the age of 7 doesn’t aid future development at all. In fact, it puts children off reading and writing.
But it’s important to catch ourselves when we start quoting statistics around results.
Instead asking ourselves: what is success? What is education for?
Increasingly we are realising that good academic results guarantee absolutely nothing, and certainly don’t correlate with greater self-esteem, compassion or creativity.
I’ve come to believe that a future education that’s fit for human beings, focuses on freedom, agency, contribution, compassion, creativity, collaboration and self-acceptance before anything else.
Not just to avoid what we’ve been pushing onto children for so many years, but because we’re living a future where there is no ‘career path’, where we face a set of complex systemic problems that are impacting people and planet.
We need generation with a new set of skills, that are about seeing more clearly, feeling empathy for one another, going slow and making wise choices. Not looking to possessions, status or outside approval for a sense that you’re OK in the world.
What is the alternative?
Modern schooling is still built (largely) on the assumption that a child is an uncarved block, ready for molding into shape for society. An empty vessel ready to be filled.
Rooted in the idea that these wild creatures need elevating out of their natural state, in order to be civilised (read this amazing piece On the Wildness of Children, by Carol Black for more on this).
You might feel this is unfair, or unrepresentative. That there are many aspects of our education model that are about helping to develop the whole child, to understand themselves in relation to those around them.
I’d happily agree with you, if it wasn’t that this nurturing or development was secondary to the primary function of forced learning, repetition and application of a curriculum, in service of passing exams and tests.
What we turned these assumptions on their head.
What if a child’s natural state was just perfect?
What if we started from the position that children already have everything they need? That this just needs to be nurtured and supported?
What if, instead of trying to train children into conformity, compliance and memory recall, we just gave them the space to explore being themselves, working with others, on things they cared about?
These are the fundamentals of an alternative approach to education that’s in practice all over the world.
Children learn through play and exploration — indeed, they only ever learn this way.
They are more than capable of making choices for themselves, and the things they choose to do, they learn most from.
They are naturally helpful and kind, and love working with children of other ages.
In age-mixing they learn to moderate and manage their own behaviours.
They can resolve many of their own conflicts, if given the chance, and need to learn to do so if they’re to function well in the world.
Adults and children are equal. The ‘teachers’ play the role of facilitators, coaches or support-workers. They are not there to give praise or tell off.
Equal participation in decision-making about their school is usually important.
Many have a weekly ‘whole school meeting’ where all community members, children and adults participate in decision making about every aspect of the school, from persistent untidiness to bullying and exclusions.
Connection to nature is often believed to be essential to wellbeing. Either set in large grounds, close to parks, or based entirely in forests.
Contribution and service to their community (school or local) is often fundamental. The belief is that it helps develop a sense of purpose, cohesion and interest in supporting the spaces we belong to.
Project-based learning is fairly common. Children are often given space to pick and choose a topic or issue they want to work on and develop their own projects.
Agile tools are also being used. Helping children develop clear intentions and records of progress through morning stand-up meetings, setting goals and looking back at the end of the day or week.
Many of the schools hold sacred the belief that the emphasis should be fully on creating the right social structure, and the learning will then follow .
The belief is that the primary function of education is to nurture and develop the delicate emotional and social functions of children’s brains, trusting that intellectual learning can, and will, happen when it is needed.
To this end, many of these schools have little or no standard, structured curriculum. Children either co-create their learning plans, or — in extreme cases — choose what they want to do each day they show up.
…Luke is 14. He’s spent the past three years being bounced from one behavioural referral unit to another.
He’s desperately unhappy and feels like he’s in a room full of children who have been swept under the carpet.
The staff do their best to manage the group, but that’s really about it. They’re just as stuck as the children.
Luke’s mum started reading him “Summerhill School” by A.S. Neil, a narrative of the famous free school and life their.
Eventually he asked her to stop. It felt like torture imagining that this place existed when he was stuck where he was.
Despite being a single parent family, Luke’s mum sells up and moves them to a small house in the middle of nowhere, right near another alternative school, and managed to get him in on a bursary.
The moment Luke arrives, he starts trying out the old behaviours — kicking out and playing up to get attention.
It doesn’t seem to be working. Whatever he does just seems to go unnoticed.
Eventually, one day he finds himself in a lesson, hiding under a table. He’s trying to piss the teacher off and get attention from his peers.
The teacher is walking around, giving out handouts. They ask: “Has anyone seen Luke?”
Someone gestures under the table.
The teacher bends down and gently passes Luke the handout.
He finally realises that here he’s going to be totally accepted for whoever he is, so he might as well start being just that…
BUT BUT BUT
To anyone fully adjusted to our current paradigm of schooling, this all might sound irresponsible, or just totally incomprehensible.
I had a bunch of knee-jerk reactions, and experienced a lot of challenge from parents (and teachers) that I share them with. So, I made sure that on my journey I made sure to find the answers.
“Won’t they sit around doing nothing all day?”
Well, no. It turns out that doing nothing leads to feelings of boredom. And when children get bored, they find something to do. Children want to learn. They love to learn. It’s only our focus on results and the lack of choice in what they learn that takes the love of learning out of them. All you need to do is give them children free range and a few prompts.
“Surely they won’t push themselves, without an adult to prompt them?”
Push themselves in service of what? When we change the focus from achieving results to developing my innate sense of agency, compassion, creative thinking and what I want to offer to the world, then no-one needs to push them, they do this naturally (see ‘How do they learn?’ below).
“How do they learn, without a curriculum or structured lessons?”
As we live, we learn. If you’re not learning, then you’re dead. It’s only when we mistakenly label learning as sitting down and following instruction that we forget this. Young humans, just like young animals, learn through play and exploration. It’s part of our patterning. We chase each other, we look under rocks, we climb trees, we ask questions. We take things apart, we build things out of other things. This is how we really learn, through trying things out, feeling the feedback and integrating the learning. Many alternative schools do have a curriculum, but often it’s optional, or co-created. But, even one where each child chose what to learn themselves, when inspected by Ofsted was told: “You have a much broader curriculum than any other school.”
“How do they get into college or university?”
If they want to, they will. Because they want to. Most of the alternative schools I researched offer their students the option of taking GCSEs or A-Levels. Many of them achieve these in one year. Why? Because they’ve chosen to. Because it’s their choice and it will help them achieve a goal they’ve set out for themselves, rather than a narrow choice forced upon them because they’ve reached year 9.
“How will they cope with college or university?”
According to the alumni study of Sudbury Valley (one of the most ‘out there’ alternative schools), students from their school find the adjustment to university more straightforward than their mainstream counterparts. What they report is finding that they are motivated by their own intrinsic needs (and likely had to work hard to convince the institution to let them in) while their peers find themselves at university because they feel it’s expected of them. The freedom they find there is nothing new, and they’re very used to taking responsibility for themselves. Their peers have never experienced anything of the sort, and find it hard to manage their time, energy and obligations.
“How do they know if they’re doing ok?”
The more important question is: how does our current approach to assessment tell us anything about how children are really doing? Exam results and reports on how they’re doing in their subjects tell us absolutely nothing about a child’s mental or physical wellbeing or their developing social and emotional intelligence. The schools I’ve researched often collaboratively assess a child’s learning, having documented it along the way using pictures, stories and recorded evidence of things they’ve worked on over the year.
“What if they don’t learn to read?”
Being a parent of a truly democratic school, where children ultimately choose what and how they learn requires a lot of managing your own anxiety and expectations, I’m hearing. It’s unnerving to imagine your child possibly choosing not to learn something that you were taught is very important to know. But in the case of reading, it’s very rare for children to leave one of these schools without the ability. Famously only one pupil at Summerhill school ever left without basic literacy, in nearly 100 years of its history.
Where this is happening already
There are hundreds of examples of democratic, freedom-centered schools across the world, but here are those I researched, visited or who’s staff, students or parents I’ve spoken to:
Sumerhill School — the original democratic schools, founded by A.S. Neil in 1921, based in Suffolk. The school is governed by whole school meetings where children and adults all have an equal voice. The curriculum is co-created from what the children want to learn, but attendance of any and all lessons is optional, because it’s considered that the most important lessons happen outside the classroom.
Sudbury Valley — founded in 1968, in Massachusetts, one of the ‘free-est’ schools there is. A place where children are ‘given the freedom to use their time as they wish, and the responsibility for designing their path to adulthood’. Every day they choose what they do, where they do it, and who they do it with. The children choose which teachers are hired, and retained, along with many other decisions, via the whole school meeting. The Sudbury model has been adopted in over 90 schools across the world.
Agile Learning Centers —a string of microschools across the US. Very similar philosophy to Sudbury but integrating agile tools (daily standup meetings, Trello boards etc) to get children to choose a learning intention, share it with a peer group, ask for help and be able to review learning over time. Their model is open source and they run training courses for parents who want to start their own.
Lumiar Schools — three schools in Brazil, for children age 0–14, founded by Ricardo Semler (author of ‘Maverick’ and leader of democratic company Semco). Very similar to Sudbury Valley with aspects of self-directed learning, whole school circle meetings to make decisions and resolve problems. Children get together at the beginning of the year and pick a topic or issue, and teachers have to find as many creative and explorative ways for children to learn through investigation.
Sands — the only other democratic school in the UK, for humans age 11–18, in Ashburton, Devon. Unlike Summerhill and Sudbury Valley, there is a timetable, it’s fairly structured and based around core subjects. However attendance is still optional, and Sands is run by the school meeting, where children have the same voting rights as the staff.
New School Primary — a primary school based in Lewes, East Sussex founded in 2000. Run on the Reggio Emilia approach, developed by Italian Psychologist and parents from the villages surrounding the town of the same name. Created in response to the Second World War, the approach is based on “respect, responsibility, and community through exploration and discovery in a supportive and enriching environment based on the interests of the children through a self-guided curriculum”. Small class sizes split into age groups (yrs 1–2, 3–4, 5–6). Teachers and parents also are trained in Respectful Communication, to model the values they care about both inside and outside the school.
Self-Managed Learning College — based in Brighton and also running successfully for 16 years. Founded by Ian Cunningham, based on decades of working on self-managed learning programmes with major, global corporations. The school currently has children between 9–16 years-old. Through daily meetings, small learning groups, adult facilitators and weekly community meetings, the students take full responsibility for their own learning, with support from their peers and, when they need money or resources, the adult facilitators.
The Link School — based in Colorado, a democratic school in the Rocky Mountains, founded by Bobby Lewis after his transformative experience in finding alternative education at 14. Run on many of the same democratic principles as the schools above, there is a big focus on project-based learning, picking issues that impact the local community and where pupils can work together to make a difference.
Then theres Montessori, Steiner, Forest Schools, Life and Keen schools in the Netherlands. And and and.
Where does this leave me?
I’m very confident that my children would benefit from getting an education that focuses on nurturing their innate capacities for curiousity, compassion and self-direction. Not one that focuses on a standard curriculum and attainment.
I believe that nurturing their sense of agency, responsibility and ability to collaborate through equal participation in the running of their school and sorting out their own problems is deeply important.
And I believe that age mixing, small class sizes and adults that are there to support, not direct, praise or castigate are deeply important to nurture a sense of self-worth and healthy relationship with power.
I would love for my child to be regularly exposed to problems and issues in their local community (and beyond) and be encouraged to start and run projects that address them, with their peers.
I don’t think it’s for every child. And I have learned that it requires re-progamming and unlearning for the parents (and teaching staff new to these schools), more than it does for the students.
Importantly, I’d like to be able to offer this to my children — and every child in the UK if they felt it met their needs, without the fees.
Unfortunately, thanks to the very problems that undermine our schools and teachers, the way Government funding works is that a school like those I’ve described has to be private.
And this means many are £3000 a term, which would be a massive stretch for me and my family, and unimaginable for most of the UK population.
So, I’d love to see a school that is funded in the most creative way possible, and that is an integral part of the community. I’d like to see schools that are valued so highly as centres for compassion and creativity that they transform the communities they are in, and become sustainably self-funded.
With what we know now, about CICs, crowd-funding, cooperative ownership and other ideas, surely there’s a really smart way to create a new approach to funding a new and beautifully subversively approach to education?
Where could things go from here?
The current system often feels is like an oil-tanker, staffed by amazing people, doing their very best to hold off psychotic politicians.
There is certainly loads of value in doing what we can to nudge it in the right direction (see the amazing work of Young Happy Minds for just one example of this).
But that will take time. And in the space between, the government will continue to control the funding and resist alternative models (Montessori and others have been led down the garden path and denied funding at the last hurdle on more than one occasion).
So I still feel that the most viable possibility is the microschool, created by groups of like-minded parents, who carefully and considerately explore their shared values.
Every alternative institution I’ve explored started as a group of parents, in someone’s front room, often employing a teacher (or that a parent was one) and grew from there.
With the basic learning structures and tools (like Self-Managed Learning College or the Agile Learning Centres) we can provide children with the freedom and self-direction they need. Either developing a personal learning plan, or co-creating their curriculum.
And none of them would be introduced to anything that even smells like formal learning until seven years-old, because we know that this does more harm than good.
Using the democratic structures of circle meetings and dialogue we can give children and adults equal say in decision-making.
We can document learning and work with qualified child development professionals to safeguard the wellbeing of the children.
Spending regular, long periods of time in nature — my dream is at least two long expeditions, walking and/or camping each year.
Marking the milestones of the year by celebrating as a community. Working with the seasons, our body clocks and the other natural rhythms that we currently ignore.
We can teach ourselves, and our local community the same practices and principles we teach our children — rediscovering curiousity, play, critical thinking and compassion.
We can support our children to find projects that have meaning to them and impact on the world around them, so that they develop a sense of agency and purpose in their lives.
Most importantly we can hold the space for our children to develop into their unique selves, accepting of who they are and curious about the world around them.
Not consumers, not producers, just human beings, comfortable in their own skin, motivated not by a need for more, or for better, but for contribution, fulfilment and driven by their intrinsic needs.
Time for the inevitable rallying cry?
Hold on a minute.
Where’s the ‘AND SO, I, MAX ST JOHN, CAMPAIGNER FOR A BETTER FUTURE, WILL START A SCHOOL!’
The thing is, that’s been on my mind for a long time. It’s the obvious answer, right?
But this alternative education thing is ever-so zeitgeisty and trendy right now, and everyone from Seth Godin to Prince EA is shouting about it. It’s easy to get swept up and start moving for the wrong reasons.
The school issue is deeply complex — it’s not going to be fixed by opinion pieces (like this one), social media personalities or people like me starting schools because we’re feeling anxious, or because it’s an exciting and cool thing to do.
It will be addressed in the long, slow, hard work of the many, many teachers who care, campaign groups like Too Much, Too Soon and parents brave enough to speak up and act.
And starting a school is a massive undertaking. The more founders of schools I talk to, the more I hear how much a labour of love it has to be.
And, if you’re doing it at least in part for your children’s wellbeing, but they don’t get to see mum or dad so much any more, or when they do you’re stressed out and pre-occupied then…
So, I’m still holding steady — keeping an open mind, exploring possibilities and bringing this into people’s awareness.
However, I am determined that my kids will be out of mainstream before the endless cycle of exams and testing begins.
What can we do in the meantime?
Most of us aren’t ready for taking that massive step away from the social norms.
So, if this topic speaks to you, and you’re feeling as fired up but clueless or powerless as I was, here are a few ideas. Please feel free to add yours in the responses.
Home edder? Talk to other parents who are doing the same about co-schooling, or developing a micro-school. Look at the agile tools described above, and see if they might help you and your children. Get in touch with some of the institutions above, have a few Skype calls, see what’s alive for you.
Mainstream parent? Get involved in your child’s school. Become a Governor, or talk to them about age mixing and self-direction. My son’s mainstream school has started infrequently mixing classes up so younger and older kids work together. These small shifts are significant and come from people persistently speaking up.
Buy Free to Learn. Share it with a friend. Give it to a Head Teacher.
Host a meeting in your town or city. Start a conversation with another parent. Share this blog post.
Start asking: what is education for? What future do we want for our children?
Is what we are seeing, feeling now — in our society, in our world — good enough?
And can we really expect the next generation to address that if we keep forcing them through the same grinder?
Are we really not capable of something more…?
Or maybe we’re just too busy doing jobs we don’t really care about, to address something that we really do.