The success of an education system is generally measured by the grades pupils achieve. If the grades are good, its mission is seen to be accomplished. The important thing is that pupils get high enough grades to be accepted into good universities.
But what if we were to measure things differently? What if we considered that a successful education system is one which produces students who are emotionally as well as academically intelligent? Students who are mentally and physically healthy, compassionate, creative, and equipped to deal with whatever life throws at them?
Unprepared for adult life
Like many others, I left school with good grades and landed a place at a good university, so by most measures the system had served me well. But in reality, I was badly prepared for life in the outside world. I struggled endlessly with anxiety, didn’t know how to understand or manage my emotions, had poor social skills and couldn’t ask for help when I needed it. I remained firmly within my comfort zone and dismissed my dreams, thinking I couldn’t possibly achieve them. And I knew nothing about managing money – paying bills, setting up a bank account and so on.
I don’t think my experience was uncommon. Not everyone has anxiety, but many people do have issues which could be avoided.
The school system may be good at getting pupils to pass exams, but it isn’t very good at generating creativity. For me, the epitome of this is the way almost all UK pupils have to wear uniform so that they look exactly like everyone else. Piercings, colourful hair and accessories are usually discouraged. At a young age, pupils are taught that they must conform to societal standards rather than express themselves. Punishments for breaking these rules are often way out of proportion.
Though the current system helps some pupils achieve their dreams, far more just can’t engage with it. Many pupils don’t even see the point in being there, and barely bother with studying. Attempts are rarely made to find out why these pupils aren’t engaged – instead, they are treated as lazy or stupid, which further increases their disillusionment.
With all this, it’s little wonder that more and more parents are turning to homeschooling. But does it have to be this way? What changes could be made in schools to improve the situation?
Currently, children are expected to sit still in a classroom for hours on end. This is bad for both both posture and general health, and leads to pupils becoming restless and finding it hard to concentrate. Limiting our exposure to natural light by staying indoors can also disrupt sleep patterns.
Instead, children and teenagers should be encouraged to get out into nature and learn about the world around them. Being in nature has many benefits for mental health, and would likely encourage children to have more respect for the environment too. And maybe if kids weren’t expected to sit still all day, disorders such as ADHD wouldn’t be so increasingly prevalent.
Which is more useful – memorising the names of the six wives of Henry VIII, or learning how to do taxes? Yes, it’s important and enriching to learn about the past and the world around us, but surely school ought to prepare us for adult life too?
In my opinion, there isn’t nearly enough emphasis on practical skills like cooking in schools. Many people leave home with no idea how to prepare healthy food. This is contributing to the obesity epidemic, especially when people have children of their own. Education could help to break the cycle.
Mental health and self-care
There are many things that can be done to prevent mental health issues like anxiety and depression from developing. Unfortunately, the current school system tends to make these issues worse, not better.
Pupils could be taught techniques to help them manage difficult emotions and deal with life’s challenges. So many of us find it difficult to cope with stress, and fail to prioritise our own well-being. But it doesn’t have to be this way. And imagine how much easier kids would find it to learn if they were in a better mental state.
Children may learn about religious practices in school, but they rarely learn about what underlies these practices. They’re not taught to look within themselves for answers, to connect to something deeper, or to seek a purpose in life.
Yoga and meditation would be a great place to start. The former could alleviate some of the postural issues caused by sitting at a desk, and both would help with mental health. And they would also help pupils to feel like part of something bigger, so they could connect with both their education and the world around them.
Most of us are terrible communicators! Arguments, disagreements and family feuds happen because we don’t know how to effectively communicate our wants, needs and grievances to those around us. But it’s perfectly possible to learn good communication and conflict resolution skills, and these are useful in all areas of life.
Behavioural problems in schools are often dealt with via scolding, detentions and other punishments. Little attempt is made to find and tackle the root cause of the behaviour. If children are not treated with compassion, they are unlikely to extend compassion to those around them. A kinder approach would likely benefit everyone.
I don’t know about you, but personally I feel a school system incorporating even some of these elements would have hugely benefitted me. And there’s more that could be done – encouraging creativity, for example. I remember when my brother, aged about 6, had to paint a self-portrait in school. He painted his hair blond and was scolded by his teacher, in whose opinion his hair was light brown. She made him paint over it because it was ‘wrong’. This sort of dogmatic approach makes children afraid to express themselves, which is a tragedy.
Additionally, students who are about to leave school are strongly pushed towards university, with little consideration of whether it’s right for them. And when I was in school, there was absolutely no discussion of being self-employed or starting your own business. For me, it would have been extremely helpful to know that this was an option.
A better system would create adults who are healthy in both body and mind, well-adjusted, empowered and compassionate towards others. Schools can’t do everything, but they could make a huge difference to children’s lives. And that in turn would influence society as a whole. With this in mind, it has to be worth making some changes.