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Education is too important to leave to schools

By Susan Wight - posted Friday, 15 February 2008

There is a major problem with education today: it is left to schools and education is too important for that.

I can’t quite believe in the promised “Education Revolution”. My problem is that it is almost exclusively about schools and schools are not the only, not even the best, place for children to learn.

Schools continually change in terms of new classrooms, new programs, new text-books, nicer desks, more computers, a lower teacher-to-student ratio and so on.


As far as politicians are concerned what children actually learn in school is of little importance except as rhetoric for their next speech. No real change takes place in education because, to politicians and bureaucrats, there will always be students - nameless, ageless, faceless students. What does it matter to politicians and bureaucrats if one set of faceless students morphs into another over time while they make their promises and write their policies and implement yet another wonder-program?

In the real world, children grow up, while politicians and bureaucrats continue to talk about the good of “the nation’s children”. Kids are still sitting in a classroom for much of their lives being taught a set of predetermined skills and facts by people who have very limited knowledge of the individual children themselves or what they are really interested in.

When will kids get to spend more time out of the classroom and in the real world? Do they have to wait until they grow up to learn the skills they really want and need to know?

Many of the facts being taught in schools today will be obsolete by the time they grow up. When I was in school I learnt the unquestionable fact that there were nine planets in our solar system. Now the official count is eight plus three dwarf planets and a further 397,000 odd minor planets.

A lot of emphasis is still placed on handwriting in schools. “A good hand” used to be the mark of a well-educated person, and handwriting was an important work-place skill. These days few of us do much hand-writing apart from our shopping lists. Typing is now much more important - although by the time our children have grown up it may have been replaced by texting, or maybe enunciation will be more important if voice-activated technology takes off.

My point is that human knowledge is expanding all the time and technology is rapidly changing the skills required. Schools don’t have a monopoly on knowledge and certainly can’t be relied on to keep pace. This is why the concept of a national curriculum seriously jars with me. There has never been a set of absolute knowledge that all children must learn before being admitted to adulthood and there never will be. A national curriculum implies there is.


Until a couple of hundred years ago education was a far broader concept than school. For hundreds of years kids lived and worked alongside their parents and learnt everything they needed to know as they grew - through practical life-experiences, through conversation and through formal and informal apprenticeships.

The industrial revolution changed all that. Huge numbers of people flocked to the cities and a time of unprecedented social change ensued. In 19th century England the Factory and Education Acts defined children as a separate, non-adult population and protected them from the evils of the industrial workplace. This was motivated by very real needs but, at the same time, the erosion of the parent’s role as the primary educator had begun.

Dewey recognised this in the late 1800s when he claimed that the “modern” society was at a serious disadvantage in communicating its purposes and skills to the next generation, and urged schools to take on this role.

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About the Author

Susan Wight is a Victorian mother who, together with her husband, home educated her three children who are all now well-educated adults. She is the coordinator of the Home Education Network and editor and a regular writer for the network’s magazine, Otherways.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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