Education. Everyone in the world gets one. To doubt this is to confuse the concept of education with the idea of schooling. My view of education is perhaps a little different from many: I define it as the sum total of your experiences, how you choose to interpret them, and how you choose to respond to them. By this definition, be it positive or profoundly unhelpful, education is inevitable.
Schooling, on the other hand, is a very different proposition. Like education, schooling is largely a lottery based on gender, wealth and geography. But there are also some crucial potential points of difference.
Firstly, not every child has the chance to go to school. This is significant if you believe that school is an essential part of education, as does the majority (but by no means all) of the developed world.
There are still too many people whose circumstances deny them the chance to go to school. There are still others who believe wholeheartedly in the idea of education, yet for a variety of reasons do not see fit to entrust their children to the care of a formalised education system, preferring to home-school them instead.
Education is a wide-open, infinitely expanding and in-expendable range of experiences. Schooling on the other hand has too often been a narrowly focused experience in which we frequently value conformity over creativity, remembering over reframing, and prescription over experimentation. I remember at the age of 13 excitedly creating a flowchart to add two mixed numbers together – an early form of computer algorithm in its way- only to be told that it was more important to learn the ‘approved’ method. I was devastated and never forgot the wrong lesson I learnt that day: do not stray far from what others deem to be ‘correct’ or ‘suitable’.
But I also learnt some amazing things at school; I became fascinated by the Roman empire, war poetry, physics, literature, music, mathematics, conjuring, Macbeth, chess, philosophy, the ancient Greeks, the Bible, acting, football, cricket, debating, singing in a choir, playing table tennis, conkers, Latin, and lots more, and have kept my interest in many of these to this day.
However, just as importantly I learnt: people are capable or extraordinary kindness and extraordinary cruelty, and sometimes the same people are capable of both; not everyone shares my passions or dislikes or thinks as I do; I don’t like everyone and not everyone likes me, even when there are no obvious reasons; I am deeply flawed but basically good; others are too; friendship is priceless (and the lack of it is devastating), some people are smarter than me, some people are less smart than me, popularity is a fickle and futile mistress, nobody owes me anything, everyone acts in a way that makes perfect sense to them at the time, I learnt how to think, converse and communicate, and above all, I l learnt that the world does not revolve around me.
It is this second list that I would deem true ‘education’. Because these lessons were not learnt in a formal way; they were learnt in the day-to-day interaction with fellow humans. And such interaction happens whenever we are in a group, not merely in school. So it seems to me that the best thing about school is that it will always force us to interact with people who can inspire us, share their ideas with us, and help us to become all that me might be.
I am not arguing that the date of the battle of Hastings, the value of the cosine of 60 degrees, the poetry of Philip Larkin (who I presumed just have met my parents), creating a beautiful piece of art or knowing the chemical formula for hydrogen fluoride are without their use, but clearly the proportion of people for whom each will be relevant is small. The learning process itself is arguably far more important than the curriculum by which it is delivered. Literacy and Numeracy aside, content is relatively unimportant compared to the ways in which that content allows us to be stimulated and self-aware.
This is why the knowledge we gain at school is but a small part of our education system. There is an oft-quoted truism that education is what remains when we have forgotten all the facts we learnt at school. Yet we still judge the success or otherwise of our schools by the ability of children at certain ages to regurgitate facts, perform memorised processes or to quote from books they may never read again.
So while school may well be home to the majority of our bank of knowledge, it has a wider and altogether more important role to play. Of course the best schools realise this and focus hard on those things that matter – being a good contributor to one’s own society, being creative, being respectful of others regardless of gender, age, race or status.
Yet while schools still continue to be judged by crude measures, and in broad percentages, such as the ridiculous notion of ‘expected progress’ and high-stakes examination results, it is unlikely that this will be given priority; the fear of being labeled an academic failure means that too many schools are in danger of forgetting their true purpose – to help all children become all they might be, to improve their lives, and to help them be part of a society that values them for who they are, not what they know.