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School

Choosing a first school for your child is hard and in the UK it’s verging on a lottery. You put down three choices and then wait to get an allocation, based on a whole raft of mysterious criteria. The temptation is to choose the nearest one that’s half decent and that you’ve got a really good chance of getting into and put that first. Choices two and three tend to be made up of a school that’s the best of the bunch but don’t have much chance of getting into (the blind hope) and a school that isn’t that popular but at least isn’t a disaster (the last resort). And that’s your list.

So, this is how the majority of us guide our children through school – a mix of hopefulness and damage limitation. What are the other options? Well, if you earn enough, of course, you can send them to a private school. There’s no questioning the resources and encouragement this gives them access to, but private schools are just good schools – better versions of the schools that we have for free. Which makes us ask ourselves a really important question. Are we happy with the way the school system works and, if not, would a really good version of it be any better?

One of the schools we visited on our grand tour of educational possibilities had a rating of “outstanding” from the UK inspection body, Ofsted. When we got there we discovered that outstanding meant that every child conformed to a rigid system of quantifiable achievement. They had a way of doing things at the school and you fitted in with that or you left. You’d laugh about this if it wasn’t so depressing. After all, “outstanding” actually means standing out and from what we saw that was definitely discouraged.

So, the big problem is that school on a large scale is about creating a well-oiled machine. It’s actually the opposite of good parenting, where you spend your time endeavouring to find your child’s unique capabilities, where you nurture their individual interests. I remember a quote about reasonable people fitting in with the world and unreasonable people expecting the world to fit in with them, the argument being that all progress was made by unreasonable people. So, are we being unreasonable? And is that really a good thing?

It seems that many people who are successful (by which I mean that they spend their lives pursuing a vocation that excites them and makes them happy) succeed despite school, not because of it. In fact, it’s not hard to see the school system as an assault course. You spend your school years overcoming wave after wave of subjects you have no interest in – learning them by heart and passing exams, only to claw your way out of the mud of irrelevance like a crack commando. Ultimately, if you make it that far, you earn the right to pursue a PhD in the one thing you were pretty much always interested in but everyone told you had no future. OK, so I’m being extreme. But school is like the army in so many ways it’s scary.

We’re left with the feeling that we want to do something different. It’s actually quite disturbing to realise how many things in our lives we want to do differently now that we’re really thinking about them. We’re starting to wonder if we’re freaks. Of course we’re considering home-schooling, but the problem with being educated in a system ourselves is that it makes considering an alternative very hard. We’ve been institutionalised. All we can do is try and approach it as logically as we possibly can (as we’ve been trying to do with everything else).

Home-schooling offers some real advantages, such as the ability to nurture real interest, but isn’t it also vain? Do we really know what’s best for our children or do we just think we do? The other problem with home-schooling is that it doesn’t expose children to the “real” world. In other words they don’t get to mix with vast numbers of other children suffering the same mind-numbing, day-to-day misery as themselves (sorry, that sentence wasn’t supposed to end so negatively, it was just to good an opportunity to miss). Seriously though, the lack of large-scale social interaction in home-schooling is a worry for us. It’s also a genuine concern that our children might not discover the world as it really is, rather than how it is in our cocoon, until it’s too late.

As a result of all this thinking we’re left with the feeling that all we really want for our children is a really good school. We like the idea of home-schooling but we can see real problems. We’re not teachers. We have other jobs. Home-schooling in some ways seems like giving up. Aren’t we just saying that we’re happy for all those other children to suffer the school system, but that ours are too special?  What we actually need to do is re-design the school system from the ground up. We need to be unreasonable and say that that we think the school system could be better for everyone, not just our children. We need to clarify our beliefs, write our manifesto. Input greatly appreciated…