Saturday 1 October 2016

'We should teach our kids to thrive in the system - not opt out'

Published 17/04/2016 | 02:30

Stella O'Malley.
Stella O'Malley.

Many of us agree that the current school system is a disaster and needs a complete overhaul. The emphasis on the Leaving Cert is a bad joke and the glorification of children who get 625 points purely because they are able to memorise vast tracts of information would be laughable if it wasn't so irritating.

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However, just like hospitals, public parks and museums, the actual concept of school is hard to argue with - it makes collective sense to pool our resources so that some of us can teach the children and the rest of us are then free to contribute to the world in other ways.

Home-schooling is a more inward and exclusive concept. It is child-led, often imaginative and can be incredibly motivating. Home-schooled students learn efficiently and will often need only a few hours to complete the equivalent of a week's worth of the traditional curriculum.

When we look at the 16-year-old novelist Eilís Barrett, who first read War and Peace when she was nine, the highly accomplished Cora Venus Lunny and the remarkable success of Caitlin Moran, we can immediately see the triumphs of home-schooling.

Some home educators are very skilful and intuitive teachers and their children clearly benefit from their talents. There is a whole other group of home educators who believe their children's health and well-being is at risk if they go to school and so they keep the kids at home, often at great personal expense to themselves.

But perhaps it would be more beneficial to teach children how to survive and thrive within the system rather than opting to go off the grid entirely.

Even though my secondary-school experience was not ideal, I'm glad I went to school. I'm glad that I understand the cultural references and I believe that school gave me the opportunity as a child to have a good look at 'how things work' that I have been analysing ever since. I also made some lasting friendships during those terrible days at school. I learned how to handle difficult people. I learned how to put up and shut up as the world didn't revolve around me.

I moved away from my parents' beliefs and I began to explore other people's. And, perhaps most importantly for me, as the Madness song goes, I learned "how to bend and break the rules".

Could I have done this with a home-school education? I don't believe so.

Schools are not perfect but then neither is home-schooling. If the child's education is managed primarily by the parents, then that child is in danger of being indoctrinated into the family's way of thinking with fewer opportunities to dilute this with external influences.

But the intense demand on parents' time and emotions is perhaps the biggest issue with home-schooling. The current tendency of parents to deify their children and place astronomical weight upon the importance of their education is disturbing. It is certainly worth laying down your life for the Holy Grail of education if the family is stuck in a ghetto with no option but to educate their children out of poverty. However, middle-class children in Ireland - and it is this group that mostly turns to home-schooling - don't need education to get out of the ghetto. These children usually have a whole range of opportunities in which to flourish and it seems inappropriate for parents to needlessly sacrifice 20 years of their lives in a bid to educate their children when there is a half-decent school down the road.

Now that the internet has arrived, a good education is freely available online to anyone who is self-motivated enough to seek it - but school offers more than educational accomplishment.

Schools offer more civic, emotional and social development and they also offer parents the bracing notion that their precious chickens are no more special than anybody else's.

The Caitlin Morans and the Eilís Barretts of the world may find it easy to stand alone but there are many others who simply want to fit in. Most of us want to live within a functioning system because we believe that it is in each other's shadow that we flourish.

Instead of home-schooling our children, perhaps it would be more worthwhile to put our energies into helping to make schools better?

Stella O'Malley is a psychotherapist and author of Cotton Wool Kids

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