Can we educate education?
The first week in September looms – with that “back to school” feeling, the new clothes on the wardrobe door and the new shoes under the bed, a pencil case packed with sharpened pencils and a bag full of good intentions. Conventional education is about to leap into action – but where does that leave us as Transitioners?
The trouble with the education provided in most our schools is that viewed through the Transition lens much of it is frankly misguided or irrelevant and some of it is downright dangerous. One of the benefits of being an ex-head teacher is that now I can see the system for what it is – or what it has become, the plaything of consumer culture, ever ready to be used as a political football for the government of the day.
I can’t find a definition of a Transition education but my simple guess is that we want children and young people to be aware of our environment as a fragile, beautiful system, of the effect of burning fossils fuels and of resource depletion. We wish our children to value each other, to get on with each other, to work in groups for the benefit of all. We want them to have the literacy, numeracy and scientific skills to be able to manage in a complex world and to contribute to its development in many contexts. We want them to have the physical skills and the mental attitudes that mean they can “do for themselves” and others in tougher times and the gift of being able to celebrate beautifully, whatever happens.
Most parents with young children have started educating them informally from the first few months into the beliefs and values held dear in their own household. I personally think it is OTT to be replacing nursery rhymes with transition ditties - though I rather like:
No oranges and lemonsWill keep down your carbonsEat Bramleys and PippinsSays our leader Rob Hopkins.
You do it unconsciously by the day by day conversation and explanations about what we are doing today and why, the way we travel by bus or choose books from the Library, recycle newspapers, only eat meat twice a week maybe and make our presents for family and friends. Your children have taken it all in, along with what they see at friends’ houses and on television and your responses to their questions and “Can I haves.” By the age of four a number of them could give their future teachers a lecture on sustainable living. But they don’t – instead they are swept into a system of expectations that assesses their skills and abilities from near enough day 1, that lays heavy emphasis on literacy and numeracy and sets targets that have little to do with the development of the individual as an individual and most to do with creating the kind of people that our society thinks it needs.
That does not mean I am against numeracy and literacy – on the contrary, they are hugely important. However individuals need to be equally valued for skills of hand eye co-ordination, co-operation and team work, plant and animal care, art/dance/singing and craft of all kinds. Whilst we favour the academic we skew the lives and existence of the next generation, reduce the self-esteem of the many for the benefit of the few and perpetuate the view that only those with high status skills deserve to take part in decision making in our society.
You may protest, quite rightly, that junior and infant schools make great efforts to include more environmental awareness, through outdoor play, sowing and growing, trips to farms and nature reserves, projects on mini beasts and the like. They have school councils and conflict resolution groups, school choirs and concerts and plays. Some even have their own wind turbine and chickens. But few of these are considered essential for the curriculum and many are hard fought traditions maintained in the teeth of the demands of league tables and OFSTED inspections.
More than that, there is the hidden curriculum that every child takes in day by day – the whole, often unquestioned system that embraces consumption and waste. When I started teaching in a secondary school the remedial readers (yes it’s a long time ago!) kept their records on the back of an old Christmas card. All our drawing paper was waste from the office and every page of an exercise book had to be used up both sides before you got a new one. Computers have got rid of a lot of the need for paper records yet now we have and use and throw away far more paper than we ever did then. In the OFSTED approved “outstanding” classroom environment there’s not much room for sustainability, except perhaps as a display on the wall. Everything has to look new and shiny, and preferably bright coloured. We order from huge catalogues, goods sourced from all over the world which get thrown out rather than repaired if they are broken or worn. Watch a school in operation and you could feel you were drowning in oil – from the over warm classrooms to the throw away worksheets, from the lunchtime packaging to the school logo-ed bookbags we consume without thought.
Returning to the declared curriculum we could argue that the most difficult schools in inner cities would benefit most from a Transition type education. The emphasis on doing and developing physical skills has special relevance to boys, who are most at risk of disaffection from an early age. Valuing craft skills would mean children saw the importance of manual work and making things yourself from an early age and took those skills and attitudes back into their own home environments. The confidence and self-expression gained from putting a high value on work in arts and music for many children would become a lifelong enjoyment and for some a saving grace. Literacy and numeracy in the context of practical work would have purpose. Of course, these are the schools least able to take any steps away from a rigidly accepted norm, judged as they are by the need to reach and exceed unrealistic floor targets and threatened by private takeovers as “forced academies”.
In the face of all that, is there anything we can do? Some people take the view that the state system can never fill the bill and opt for home education or possibly Steiner school. For most people those options are too costly or too difficult. Many of us are either beyond or before the stage of having children in school. But one thing every Transition group should consider is getting involved in the local primary school – we have so much to offer, even if it has to be shoe-horned into the curriculum, and our presence is a guarantee that the next generation get a glimpse into a different way of life.
Photos: infant classroom (Gary?), buying potatoes from Pilling pupils, Downhills anti academy protest (NUT site)