Schools are preparing children for the wrong future

Lucton School

Parents searching frantically for places in a decent school for their children – one that gets good results and values a happy atmosphere, say – are failing to spot that even the best schools fail to offer an appropriate education for their pupils at all.

Why? First, because of the future our children face. Remember, modern society is founded on an abundance of fossil fuels (mainly oil), which has produced an economic and social web of such complexity that for many of us life is very far removed from its underlying connections with the natural world. This era is coming to an end, compounded by unfolding planetary crises that are taking us into a transition that will affect how we live, eat, travel and work and the skills we will need to do these things.

Currently most of us could not function without modern materials, communications, industrial food production and paid income from indoor work; we are reduced to infant-like dependency on the systems of modern life. Mainstream education is producing young adults with these same specializations and limitations, physically and psychologically. Yet the adults of tomorrow will need the know-how, confidence and imagination to survive (and shape) the transition to a post-carbon world. This will demand practical skills as much as analytical ones, to say nothing of adaptability, flexibility and resilience. Eco-building and design, sustainable agriculture, permaculture, and bioregional economics will surely count for more in this world than qualifications in media, management studies, or gaming software.

Consider, too how modern education – by reaffirming the separation from nature and training us in ever more inventive ways to dominate, exploit and domesticate our natural world – has led us into our current environmental predicament. If we continue with this programming, it is hard to see how tomorrow’s young adults will find the capacity to form the deep respect for and connection with our living planet that will be needed to ensure true sustainability.

These are sweeping statements. But irrespective of the assumptions we make about society’s trajectory from here there is another compelling set of reasons that schools are failing our children. This has to do with how they are taught as well as what they are taught. The fact is that some common educational methods are precipitating a decline in certain aspects of child development that are crucial to their health and well-being as individuals, regardless of their future requirements for survival.

Crushing creativity
Sir Ken Robinson (advisor to the UK government’s 1998 committee on creative and cultural education, leading voice on education and creativity, and author of ‘Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative’) makes the astonishingly bold statement (and he does so repeatedly) that schools kill creativity.

Speaking at the TED conference in 2006, he spelled out with passion and wit how we squander our children’s talents, educate them out of their creative capacities, and follow a system of education designed after the industrial revolution to create workers for industry. “There isn’t an education system on the planet that teaches dance every day to children the way we teach them mathematics. Why not?” he asked.

This observation is more important than it might first seem. (Although interestingly, not entirely accurate, for there are of course societies where educating children predominantly entails song, dance, story-telling, myth and mystery, art and crafts: the ones we call primitive. But that’s another issue, to which this article returns below.)

If we are processing our children to be analytical and dispassionate more than imaginative and impulsive, we are not only doing them out of the opportunity to develop as they are entitled to, but also denying them the very activities that motivate, inspire and energize them.

Sir Ken concludes: “Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth, for a particular commodity; and for the future, it won’t serve us. We have to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children.”

Child on computerIn doing so, we might want to start with the little ones. It’s not long since the newspapers failed to cover much at all of the controversy about the UK government’s Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) curriculum. This came into effect this September 2008, and prompted cries of alarm from education experts. Their concern was not about the entire curriculum – much of it is valuable and well-thought through – but on the part of EYFS that stipulates compulsory targets and assessments in literacy, numeracy and computer use. Note: this applies to all children in childcare settings from the age of 22 months. By the time today’s two year olds are four or five and arriving in the reception class, desk-based, screen-based activity will be established practice.

Screens slow development
The reasons to be worried are outlined well by Open EYE, a public campaign against these aspects of the EYFS run by a group of academics, teachers and educational experts. Open EYE commissioned psychologist Dr Aric Sigman to research the effects of ICT use in early childhood. His report comes up with some extremely disquieting findings, summarized in an article in the Summer 2008 issue of Green World. They include that ‘Exposure to screen technology during key stages of child development may have counterproductive effects on cognitive processes and learning’; ‘Learning through watching screens neither rivals nor exceeds early years learning through more traditional ‘non-virtual’ means; and ‘Even moderate levels of screen viewing are increasingly associated with a wide range of health risks’. Dr Sigman concludes that ‘education authorities should reconsider the role of screen technologies in schools’.Computers in a Northampton School

Sigman expands on this in an article in the Times Educational Supplement where he explains exactly why regular screen-based activity during key stages of child development can adversely affect cognitive processes and learning. He points to an extensive study of 10,000 British children that has thrown up an ‘intellectual deficit,’ whereby an 11-year old today performs at the level of an eight- or nine-year old 30 years ago. Researchers attribute this shift to the increasing amount of time spent in front of computers and television, and there are clear neurological reasons why this is the case. The lack is already showing up in the workplace; employers are reporting a noticeable decline in the ability of junior engineers and apprentice mechanics to cope with and solve straightforward mechanical problems.

Competitive culture
Huge though they are, the exchange of practical skills for virtual ones and the crushing of creativity are not the only issues. The trickle of middle class parents pulling their children out of school to home-educate is often down to the desire to free their offspring from the culture of schools: the routines, the pressure, the testing and grading, the labelling and streaming, the large classes, and the approaches to discipline. More drawbacks are outlined in ‘The Deschooling Convivium,’ written by author and philosopher Charles Eisenstein to help undo ‘the habits of the classroom.’ These habits, he says, include ‘looking to authority for answers and instructions, following a program determined by someone else, needing to be right, addiction to meaningless praise, [and] conditioning to dull, trivial work to obtain external rewards.’ These all ‘affect our adult lives and cripple our effectiveness and power,’ says Eisenstein.

Home education might appear to be the obvious alternative, and it is certainly a choice to be admired for the courage and commitment of its practitioners. It can also offer more space for hands-on and outdoor activities and help overcome some of the issues associated with competitive learning in large groups. However, home education is not a full solution. For one thing, it is only available to those privileged enough to afford one parent not earning. But more importantly, it cannot correct the cultural myopia that determines how and what children are taught – and the effect of this on their perception of their place in nature. Its fundamental underpinning is still Western, post-industrial, mind-focused learning, because that is our culture.

Aboriginal children prepare for dance from www.janesoceania.comFor a real alternative, we should look again to those diminishing groups of people who do indeed educate their children in a way outside our own cultural norms. Anyone who has seen the film Kanyini cannot fail to have been moved by the heart-achingly beautiful black-and-white scenes of Aboriginal children learning and playing freely in the Australian outback.

The narrator and star of the film Bob Randall – a Yankunytjatjara tribal elder and one of the traditional owners of Uluru – explained to VIVID: “In our traditional ways, we were all learning from the moment we could listen. There were four lines of teaching for everything: song, story, dance and painting. Everything we learned, every topic, was taught using each of those four lines. It was always aural and action, and so it stays with you for life.”

Natural connections
For Aboriginal children in Bob Randall’s time (and for a tiny minority today as well as other indigenous peoples elsewhere) the content of their education was mainly focused on survival, of course, but implicit in that education and essential to it was a deep appreciation of life and the planet, which was at once emotional, musical, artistic and spiritual. “Everything is family, to us,” explained Randall. “The understanding comes from our totemic, Earth-based connections. You feel a sense of responsibility for every living thing on Earth. Everything in your totemic line is related to you. And you don’t hurt family, do you?”

Indigenous elder Bob Randall

In giving its children such a profound understanding and love of life through song, dance, stories and painting, this aboriginal tribe manages to provide exactly the aspects (in terms of both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’) that are missing from our own education. It’s time to find an approach that blends these elements with the skills needed by upcoming generations.

This challenge surely merits urgent attention from governments, schools and families. It demands the foresight, insight and bravery to confront reality and take a courageous about-turn, guided by wise input from other cultures and coordinated help from organizations already leading the way.

Such organizations include Human Scale Education, Forest Schools, Sands School, The Small School, Education Otherwise, the International Democratic Education Network, the Steiner Waldorf Fellowship, Leapnow and The Center for Ecoliteracy.


  1. Very profound hypothesis. It bears much thought. In spite of a large amount of study, even from antiquity, I still don’t think we know how children learn or what the “best” system is. Every time we change something (I never had phonics) we find it has adverse results. It drives me nuts that we have to medicate 10% of children so that they can survive in a traditional classroom. Maybe we should spend more time, as you have, thinking about educating kids rather than dropping bombs on them in Afghanistan.

  2. Dr. C., thank you. I agree, and will return to the medication of children (and adults) in a future article. It is another example of the insanity, as indeed is our choice of prioritising killing over nurturing. (Even more horribly prominent now with the war on Gaza; on which thank you for posting such important photography on your own site, to which I will refer in my next post…)

  3. Coming into contact each summer with the supposedly skilled, computer-literate bright sparks who gain hard-fought places in government research labs as their summer placements, and finding them to be highly trained in what I consider secretarial skills rather than scientific abilities, I find myself nodding eagerly at the first part of your essay. Then you mention home-schooling without first spitting in disgust. Here in the US, there are 2 reasons for home-schooling: the first is the desire to shield children from evil doctrines such as evolution; the second is to make sure one’s child receives a better education than is available in public schools. The first is obviously heinous, the second only less so. It smacks of a snobbery that leaves the hordes of children without this opportunity at the mercy of a system that is further impoverished when the very parents who remove their children are the best equipped to work toward changing the system.

  4. Thanks, libellule. Your observations on recent young recruits are revealing, and do seem to support the proposition that independent thought and creativity are not being nourished in modern, western systems of education.

    I pondered your comments on home education for some time. My knee-jerk reaction was to agree with your points and question my own; I have no tolerance of elitism in education or anywhere else, and, while I reserve my strongest distaste for those who support the private system (the British version of which is satisfyingly dissected here), it’s true that many home educators are motivated by a snobbish attitude to state schools, which I too find objectionable.

    But that’s the knee-jerk reaction. I believe there are mitigating factors in favour of home education.

    First is that, in Britain at least, not all home educators are doing so to give their children an advantage over the rest; for some it is a last measure to help spare their children an otherwise acute disadvantage, that perhaps arises because the children’s needs are being overlooked by a system too huge and impersonal to care, or because they are being bullied. Others know there is something wrong with the mainstream, but feel powerless to change it. Their feelings are not entirely misplaced. It’s not easy to influence a school, as I know from direct experience as a parent of school children and, for the last six years, a school governor. However innovative and energetic the school’s head, staff, governing body and parents may be, their hands are largely tied if their funding is from the state.

    Secondly, although home education is only available to those privileged enough to afford it, they do at least work hard to use this privilege. The levels of personal sacrifice, commitment and investment required of the parents are enormous, and their achievements go largely unrecognised.

    So – I reserve some respect for the home-schoolers. But I’m very grateful for your comments: they’ve prompted deeper consideration. My respect now has caveats! It would be far better if, en masse, the home-schoolers could work together to push for an alternative, inclusive approach to educating our children.

  5. After I had written my post, I remembered that I too make an exception to my spitting impulse for the home-schooling of children who are bullied or whose learning difficulties are not accommodated in state schools, and whose parents, therefore, cannot keep them in the system.

    I also went through the same scenario of home-schoolers banding together to make something new. What bothers me about the home-school system is just how labour-intensive it is, and that the hard work and resources of one parent benefit only that parent’s child. In theory, if several parents joined forces, they could take turns, with the parents not on-duty free to use their talents for other good deeds (or work). Or they could trade skills or accommodate more children… in effect forming a mini-school outside the mainstream. Then my cynicism kicked in and I remembered that Utopias don’t generally work, that petty disputes and popularity contests, reasons to exclude individuals, bitterness and frustration, and all the other betes noires would probably clobber the effort before long. At the very least, it would require repressing every instinct to be focused on the interest of one’s own child. I say this as a non-parent and can already hear the “you don’t understand” chorus rising, and that is undoubtedly true.

    I also read your link to the critique of the private school system. I have heard here, too, proposals to favour the top x % of students in high schools at competitive universities, regardless of their level relative to students in other schools. Apart from the necessity to provide remedial teaching for those students from less privileged schools, I find the idea very interesting. The prospect of the middle-classes scurrying to get their children into currently lousy schools is delightful. I think it could work, too. Children, after all, judge themselves and are judged relative to their peers.

  6. Your points about the inefficiency (in terms of time and effort spent per child) of home schooling and the would-be benefits of clubbing together coincide with my thoughts exactly. You’re probably right to suspect that it’s an idealistic model though. The Small School cited in the article seems to work almost like this, but does require some money from parents too. And parent or not, you’re spot on, I think, to guess that people’s pettiness and focus on their own children would likely spoil any attempts at a model based on shared responsibility. It would need a sense of true community to make it work, and there is little willingness to invest in this yet for most people, given our culture of individualism and competition. However where community initiatives are taking root – in transition towns for example – this would seem a natural model to explore.

    The prospect of the middle-classes scurrying to get their children into currently lousy schools is delightful.


  7. I realise this thread is 4 years old and your thinking about home schooling may have moved on in that time. I agree with much of this article and find the description of Aboriginal learning inspiring. I think you’re (both) making some assumptions about home schooling that aren’t upheld in my experience in the UK. You say that it’s only accessible to privileged people, where one parent is working to afford the other to be able to teach full time. That scenario is seen in only about 5% of the 30+ families we connect with. All have different ways of combining work with childcare, many working from home, many co-parenting with other families or extended family, some using enforced redundancy/unemployment or maternity leave for temporary home schooling, some using their legal right for flexible schooling (part time at school, part at home). You don’t need to be ‘teaching’ full time, just there to support your child in their play and self-managed learning. Most are less wealthy than the majority of families we know who use state schools. Nobody I know of is home schooling to escape an overly liberal ideology in schools. The opposite might be an overriding reason for some, as schools are getting more and more conservative. Above all, they home school, not out of snobbishness, but because schools don’t cater for their child’s needs for creativity, physical wellbeing or learning support. Together, we are finding ways of saving each other’s time by organising regular and occasional study groups and outings. Yes, there are disagreements but that doesn’t stop it working or stop us doing it, because disagreement is all part of effective co-operation.

  8. Hello Bridget and thank you very much for your thoughtful and insightful comment. You’re right in suspecting that my thinking on home-schooling has moved on since this article: it has. For one thing, I see increasing evidence of the way that schools suppress creativity and the freedom to learn in a natural (and therefore more productive) way (not least in the case of my sons, although their school stands out for supporting creative learning as much as is possible under the state system, so they are relatively fortunate). For another I have friends who are home-schooling their children and through the years the benefits have become increasingly clear.

    However I was unaware of the ways in which lower income (and/or both working) parents are managing to home-school, and also of the proportion of home-educators that come into that category. I take it on the chin that I was wrong to make that generalisation. It likely stems from the fact that I live in a rural area, with low population levels. The home-schooling I see here really does seem to be a full-time (and expensive) job for one parent, with extensive driving around to home-education groups, workshops, and so on. Some of them employ private tutors. Not surprising that it looks pretty privileged from that angle.

    But I’m encouraged to hear that there are myriad other ways of doing this (at least, I presume, in more populated areas) and grateful for the counter-balancing perspective – thanks again.

  9. Thanks for this. No need to take it on the chin. I sounded a bit too defensive, but just keen to share how achievable home education is. In turn, I accept I’m using an urban experience to describe what is in reality much more mixed. I do know that a lot of rural home edders are using online school, increasingly. So, kids are taught by online teachers in virtual communities for 4+ hours a day.

  10. That’s great – we’re filling in the picture between us – and it’s all interesting! Thanks for the reply and your additional points. 🙂

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