September is the ‘back to school’ month, a particularly pressured time for children making the transition from primary to secondary school. In the UK, this usually means coping with multiple changes all at once: from one teacher to many, from one classroom to many, from one learning group to many, from relatively integrated topics to many separate subjects, from simple rules to many complex rules. There is also the massive step towards seeing school as training in work skills and shaping attitudes in readiness for a life in working service for others. In my daughter’s case the transition is exacerbated because she is moving from a non-uniform primary school with a teacher committed to creative and culturally enriched learning, to an avowedly traditional school which is in the top 10 in the league table for state schools in England. Given that the intake for this school is in a disadvantaged inner-city area, these standards are the result of a pretty strong regime of discipline around completion of tasks.
Adding to this contrast, because of our particular home culture, my daughter is exceptionally geared towards freedom of action, non-conformity and open-ended thinking. I do think most children prefer a state of free open-minded play but in my 20 years of working with schools on creative and cultural learning I’ve seen so many children believe that playful thinking should be confined to playtime and that they should be weaned off it at secondary school. Our child has picked up the very opposite message because she is part of a family and network of friends who are always talking stories, games, fun projects, ‘let’s make’ and ‘what if?’
Due to this contrast between home and school, she is struggling greatly to settle in. She believes that her identity is being crushed by school and that she is trapped there as if in prison for the next 7 years. We are doing our best to encourage her to go to school but I empathise with her hugely. The situation is raising a lot of questions and memories for me, especially given that I’m writing a book chapter on what school could be.
One question is about the clear blue sea written between ‘School Phobia’ and ‘Truancy’. School Phobia (or School Refusal) is a condition of anxiety, is treated as a medical condition and does not incur such harsh or rapid prosecution of parents. Truancy is said to be a condition of anger and is treated as a behavioural or anti-social matter and incurs more rapid prosecution. I suspect that the only clear water between the two is social class. Children who struggle to settle in school are surely struggling to conform to school and its rules? Surely their anxiety is always, to some degree, mixed with anger? The difference between the phobic and the truant must be that the phobic has parents who effectively communicate their fear of social shame and prosecution. I think we should be a good deal more open to the possibility that School Phobia/Refusal is an angry rejection of what school represents as well as anxiety at being separated from an intimate or human-scale way of life.
A second question is about how children perceive the future, and the purpose of school in respect to the future. It’s pretty obvious that my daughter picks up messages from adults that we are concerned about how we are treating the planet. I think most children pick up such messages from the news and peers, if not from their parents, and even if they are told not to worry about the future it’s known that children are increasingly anxious. My daughter feels very strongly that if the future is going to be worse than now we need to make the best of the comfortable time that we still have. For a start, she does not want to waste every day of seven years doing irrelevant subjects when she could be looking after bees, watering trees, making films, learning about animals and making things she can sell. But most importantly she wants to be with people she feels happiest with, who allow her to be creative and open-minded, so that she can be happy while it is still possible to be so. Her teachers have told us that secondary school exists to prepare children for a world of work, in which they will need to follow rules, work hard and wear uniform-style clothes. But these children at schools, the ones with excellent results and the ones with ordinary results, are not stupid. They can see the economic collapse unfolding on the news, they can see that climate change is impacting already, they’ve heard why teenagers protest about the removal of education grants and university funding, they see parents being made redundant. They are starting to question why they learn and what their future holds. Like never before, we have to help them with this bigger transition, not just from human-scale to industrial-scale schools, but from what has been a very stable world to what is now an extremely fragile one. Young people need to be involved in deciding what skills they need to adapt to change. If they decide the skills they need are peace-keeping, computer programming, food-growing, biomimicry and renewables engineering, bike-mending or influencing people in power, they would probably be quite right and we should help them develop those skills. There might be 100 other skills and 1000 areas of knowledge we can’t foresee but we educators need to listen and adapt to their learning needs, because they learn for the planet not just for themselves.
If you would like to help with my research on schooling for The Learning Planet, you could complete this short survey about your experience of secondary school.
An update on our family situation: We’ve decided to withdraw our daughter from the school to home educate. We will probably use an online school to provide some structure, outside tuition and peer learners. We’re combining this with an ‘unschooling’ approach where the child finds their ‘element’ and plans their own learning around to suit their passion.