School: The Ultimate Desert Island

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  Another teenager ends her life after being bullied relentlessly by schoolmates, both in person and online. The heartrending story of Izzy Dix’s suicide, told by her mother – a single mum, for whom Izzy was her only child – has hit me at a particularly emotional moment: my kids are away and the house is thunderingly silent. God only knows how Izzy’s mother is coping with her solitude.
  And it makes me wonder – not for the first time – what the deal is with education. What good is a school if it teaches kids how to regurgitate facts for exams, which they will certainly have forgotten two weeks after finishing school, and yet is so blinkered to the facts before its eyes that it cannot see when a child is teetering on the edge?
  What, more to the point, are they teaching their students about social responsibility, ethics, compassion? At times it looks more like the mechanical imprinting of information than the careful nurturing that a bunch of insecure adolescents need.
  After blogging about my trepidation in taking Caveboy to state school, concluding that it wouldn’t harm him since, comparatively, we live in a beautiful, open, natural wonderland, by the end of term he’d come down with double pneumonia and ended up in hospital on an antibiotic drip for three days. (He did fine with treatment, thank God, and even went to the UK for Christmas).
  But he was still not back to peak health by the beginning of the spring term, so I took the executive decision to keep him out of school. It was only Infant’s, in any case, and therefore not obligatory, though if you don’t take up the offer of free state education most Spanish people look at you like one of those creepy mums who tell their kids that everyone is evil and probably still breastfeed their teenagers.
  Since I had to organise a babysitter to look after my daughter (then nearly three), I got together with two other mums and we had a babysitter-share at my house, three mornings a week. It worked a treat. There’s lots of space to play here, lots of sunshine to be out in, trees to climb, kittens, toys, craft materials…I think I can safely say they had a ball.

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  I was, meanwhile, optimistically planning a home school co-op for the following year. I could teach music! I thought. And poetry! And history! We could do whole theatre productions! And make up group stories! And plant things! If, that is, I could generate the extra six hours a day I needed to get everything else done…
  Thank heavens, then, that someone else did know that particular conjuring trick. Two wonderful friends got together and had a wooden cabin built in an olive and orange grove, filled it with Montessori equipment, kitted out a patio to the side with art things, and set up a Montessori-inspired playschool.

  Three days a week, too – the magic number I figured would work best with my kids, so I’d still get enough time to see them and be able to juggle all my other projects.
  It seems that in the two years since their dad and I split up, I’ve felt less like I needed my own space and more like I want to relish my time with my children. Partly that’s because they are growing older and more able to potter around with paints and playthings, without leaping on my back and pulling my hair or wailing over something inexplicable every five minutes.   
  And partly it’s that they go to their dad’s for days or even weeks at a time, and I realise that the house really isn’t so much fun without them in it. I don’t really inhabit it when I’m on my own here; I barely cook, which means the washing up pile is slow to accumulate, and the same could be said for the laundry too…which might sound like every housewife’s dream, but in a strange way, I appreciate these little daily tentpegs that moor my restless mind into something tangible and satisfying to finish.
  So the idea that next year Caveboy will be starting primary school leaves me feeling quite bereft. Before I know it he’ll be doing after school activities, going to friends’ to lunch, or having to contend with the increasing amount of homework that kids are being set – often, it seems, by blockheaded teachers who make them repeat the same inane tasks over and over, until all love of learning has been thoroughly stamped out of their tender heads.

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  Learning, I believe, is something that any child who has been encouraged to do so from an early age will do quite instinctively. And once they can read for themselves, the pedagogical world is their oyster. Some of the best read people I’ve met have not gone to school.
  “But it’s the social thing!” anti-homeschoolers rant. And they’re right: there are those kids whose parents, in their earnest wish not to see their kids being bullied, end up stymying their children’s own ability to work things out for themselves.
  However, it’s an argument that is just as valid in many schools, especially large, impersonal schools in which kids like Izzy Dix can fall through the net. Izzy had moved back to the UK from Australia two years before she died. She came into a high school eager to make friends, but instead found nothing but cliques with their backs turned to her, firing bitchy comments from behind their battlements to keep the stranger at bay.
  It makes me want to work hard to keep this Montessori project flourishing through to primary. Not just because the kids seem happy, interested, relaxed, engaged, alive, but because they would be fortified on all sides by a society they understand, people they know, kids whose parents meet and chat and laugh together in the street. I wonder if this isn’t really the secret ingredient to a successful school ingredient – the wider society being something that children do well to mirror.

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  I went to a state school, quite large (1500 at the time, and it’s grown a lot since I left). It was competitive; we had dozens of sports teams and dance shows and charity performances; people talked about Oxbridge at Sixth Form.
  But my parents had nothing to do with anyone from this microcosm of society, except on Parent’s Evening. There was not much point me telling them about things that happened to so-and-so; they didn’t know who they were. We were relative hermits, bookworms inhabiting a miniature classical Islamic library, or making music to ourselves. We had our own friends, other Sufis who’d come to our house to sing and do dhikr (the remembrance of God) together. We made sense among ourselves.
  Nobody from my school would have understood us. I know why my parents didn’t want to hang out with other parents; our lives ran on different runners. We didn’t drink alcohol, that ubiquitous social lubricant. We didn’t watch EastEnders. We didn’t take much of an interest in the usual English things (house prices, football, Jonathon Ross). The weather was about the only thing that affected us equally as our neighbours.

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That, of course, and our sense of humour.

  But growing up in this bisected way, with one outer life and another inner, was not much fun. I developed a hard shell to deal with everyday England that took many years of difficult work to emerge from. My interaction with people was premeditated, edited, cautious. Nobody got the full picture, which perhaps is what made me turn to writing and music with such passion.
  So in the imaginary schools of my children’s future, I hope I will always be there, brandishing trays of prawn blinis at every event, enthusiastically welcoming other parents and insisting on being their acquaintance, not just for the sake of appearances but so that my kids won’t feel that I am deserting them on a strange island every time I leave them off at the school gates.
  I intend to make it plain who I am, without shame, without fear of judgment, since if you have no shame about your real self, there is nowhere for any hater to pin their hate onto you. It’s as if you have become a transparent ball of light, melting their needles whenever they get close. And if you carry baggage around, writhing with embarrassing secrets, you can be sure that someone, bully or snark or spineless invertebrate, will take pleasure in opening them for you.
  Don’t let your light be barnacled by self-doubt. You are every bit as awesome as you wish you were. And you always have been.

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The Danger of School Bell*

Aside

School is big in our minds at the moment, and it seems that it is not far from the news either. This week, two news stories have thrown up a curious question for me.

First, there’s been 14 year old Malala Yousefzai’s shooting. An outspoken blogger for the BBC at a tender age, and the first person to be awarded Pakistan’s National Peace Prize, Malala was on a bus on her way to school in Swat Valley – a heavily Taliban-controlled region of Pakistan – when Taliban gunmen stopped the bus and shot her in the neck and head.

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The people of Pakistan immediately came out in massive demonstrations of support for Malala and condemnation of the Taliban. Malala is currently in Birmingham, England, where is seems she is slowly recovering. It is interesting to note that Malala’s school is actually run by her father, and is one of only a few schools for girls that dare to operate under constant threats from the Taliban.

Then, last night, I received a plea from Causes.com to ask the Canadian government to put 15-year-old Amanda Todd’s cyber-bullies to trial after the teenager committed suicide. If you watch the story she poignantly tells through pieces of paper on YouTube, you are thrown (back) into the cut-throat world of high school popularity politics. Not only was she hounded and humilated on Facebook with a leaked photo of her breasts, making her change schools several times, she was then beaten up by a gang of teenagers for a regrettable fling she had had and left in a ditch.

It gets nastier: utterly depressed, too anxious to leave the house and constantly cutting, she drank bleach in an attempt to kill herself. She was taken to hospital where they pumped her stomach. When she returned home, her Facebook profile was full of posts from her tormentors: “She’s so stupid, she should’ve drunk a different kind of bleach”; “I hope she reads this and kills herself.” The really sad part of this story is that she actually did.

OK. So on the one hand, there are girls in Pakistan defying murderous terrorists to go to school. On the other, there are girls whose very attendance at school means exposure to pretty much the same kind of cruelty. The Taliban had guns, while the Canadian kids only had words, but the horrible truth is that the words had more the desired effect.

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Great photo story from the Guardian about schools around the world:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/gallery/2012/sep/14/schools-around-the-world-children#/?picture=395983374&index=0

What is going on here? The contrast is making me wondering if schools are universally good for children. Both cases are extreme, but Malala is not the only girl with restricted access to schooling, and Amanda is certainly not the only developed world teen who has been scarred by her schoolground experiences.

My husband commented: “People always want what they can’t have. It used to be that parents forbade their children from going to school, because they needed their kids to help with the harvest.” (Spain’s 3-month summer holiday dates back to this time.) “Then kids are desperate to go to school, they’ll escape and go in by themselves despite the punishment. The first act of democratisation has always been sending children to school, even though parents don’t like it.”

It’s not for nothing that Europe is now practically devoid of small-scale farmers, which forces food production into vast greenhouses, such as the ones that coat the Almeria area in a frighteningly uniform sea of plastic. Not only are they an ecological nightmare (chemical fertilisers, pesticides, masses of plastic dumped afterwards), they also hire immigrant workers for a pittance, who cannot get papers and are therefore seriously marginalised in society.

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But ecology’s loss is economy’s gain – in theory. Since the fall of Franco’s fascist dictatorship in 1979, Spain has experienced an accelerated opening to the world wide markets. A huge amount of EU money has gone into building motorways across Spain to transport the food grown in the above-mentioned greenhouses to the North, where food production is lamentable low.

With democratisation came obligatory schooling from age 6, and socialist policies under Zapatero meant that millions of Spanish youths could attend universities on scholarships. Spain now has an abundance of photographers, media consultants, dance teachers, artists…and 25 % unemployment in places like Granada.

There’s no way anyone could say that education isn’t a good thing overall. Literacy alone opens up the world to small mountain communities like the one I live in; I read on a woman’s shopping bag yesterday the phrase “Leer is vivir dos vecez” – Reading means living twice. Illiteracy is still a problem here. My old neighbours, a goatherd and farmer woman in their seventies, used to walk an hour to town in the evenings to attend literacy classes. Our local cobbler still has to get me to read the labels of products in his shop.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder if Caveboy’s daily resistance to school isn’t for a reason. I certainly wouldn’t enjoy spending five hours a day in a concrete, strip-lit box with thirteen yelling, tantruming, wooden brick throwing children, having to colour in inane pictures and rip out shapes from a workbook. How is that beneficial to a child’s development? We do far more interesting, educational activities at home.

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What I worry is that the educational standard of the western world is one that is focused on results, marks, passing exams, achieving certificates to stick on walls, rising up tables, improving chances of material success. This is government-think, not humanity-think. The individualism inherent to this system breeds loneliness, greed, anxiety, fear of failure, and the neglect of those who fall through the net.

Daniel Goleman in 1995 wrote a thesis about emotional education in preschool years, quoted in this web essay by Dana Kirsch:

The preschool years are crucial ones for laying foundation skills, and there is some evidence that Head Start can have beneficial long-term emotional and social effects on the lives of its graduates even into their early adult years – fewer drug problems and arrests, better marriages, greater earning power. The Kindergarten year marks a peak ripening of the `social emotions’ – feelings such as insecurity and humility, jealousy and envy, pride and confidence. Children in the youngest grades get lessons in self-awareness, relationships, and decision-making. Some of the most effective programs in emotional literacy were developed as a response to a specific problem, notably violence. As a society we have not bothered to make sure every child is taught the essentials of handling anger or resolving conflicts positively – nor have we bothered to teach empathy, impulse control, or any of the other fundamentals of emotional competence. By leaving the emotional lessons children learn to chance, we risk largely wasting the window of opportunity presented by the slow maturation of the brain to help children cultivate a healthy emotional repertoire [Goleman, 1995].

 


What is the purpose of education? Is it to increase productivity – not least for the parents, who need a place to leave their children while they do jobs that their kids cannot participate in? Or is it to produce healthy, well-rounded, sane individuals who have a good shot at being happy throughout their lives?

Like anything, I suppose, the answer is a combination of the two. Subsistence farming, as I blogged about here previously, is not economically viable any more. While illiteracy might spare a teenager from hateful comments left on their Facebook page (indeed, it would save them from a lot of aimless, time-wasting surfing on the world’s favourite brain leech), it’s abundantly clear that people can’t get on any more without having a certain level of education.

Still, it makes me wonder: are schools in fact producing brainy but ultimately inhumane creatures who can only contribute to society in economic terms?

I’d be fascinated to hear about your experiences.

* The title is an allusion to a Spike Milligan joke about the ‘Danger of Work Bell’ – look him up if you need a good laugh after all this!