Back to school: why radical re-education is needed now

In the UK, schools have become something of a focus point for the coronavirus crisis. Parents fear for their kids and the vulnerable relatives they could infect, even as they welcome their return to education, socialization, and unofficial childcare. The teaching unions, meanwhile, have periodically been held up as the ‘enemy within’ of choice for a government and right-wing press struggling to find a convenient object of distraction, from the Conservatives’ abysmal handling of the pandemic. Combine this with a fiasco over the awarding A-level results and university places, and the fundamental weaknesses of the current school system are revealed. Which begs the question: why aren’t we taking this opportunity to completely rethink it?

The current model for public education is 200 years old and born out of two cultural aspects: the intellectual culture of the enlightenment and the economic culture of the Industrial Revolution. The first means education maintains a form that divides students into two distinct categories based on the enlightenment view of the human mind: that knowledge of canonical texts and deductive reasoning equates to intelligence. This is the ‘Academic’ mind and a means by which to separate classes (in a literal and figurative sense) of pupils. The economic motive, meanwhile, is to produce an educated enough work force for the various industrial concerns of capital. Whatever cosmetic distractions today’s system might employ, it still divides ‘Academic’ students who are smart and go on to great things (or not as it turns out these days), and the Non-Academic who you can at least teach to read and write well enough for the work force to keep the economy ticking over. This is a reductive, damaging and largely defunct method of education that serves best the interests of the wealthy and nothing else. You need only look at children to see why this system needs reappraisal.

My own niece and nephew provide prime examples. My niece is very social and loves school and has been climbing the walls throughout quarantine, anxious to return to her friends and studies. My nephew, alternately, has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and has been thriving under quarantine. He plays video games online to stay in touch with friends and his grades went up while he was away from the classroom. As someone who was badly let down by the school system myself, I admit to having a chip on my shoulder about it. But the recent crisis has proved a huge overhaul of this flawed system is in order.

Online and distance learning has just had a global trial run, so why not extrapolate from there and continue this instead of returning to the archaic “fatten the pigs by weighing them” method of continual formal assessment? Why not shrink classroom sizes and separate staffing by asking kids whether they prefer to be in a class or not? Offer them some agency, perhaps? Why not set up online tools that track learning (like a lot of job training already does) and pair out teachers as observers and inspirers as opposed to disciplinarians and crowd control? Why not look at what day of the week or what time of day certain kids seem most engaged and active and allow a more malleable timetable? Why not allow children to gravitate toward a chosen interest and spider-gram the relevant educational needs for that given topic? The possibilities are endless and we have just proved, globally, that the current model is not only easily transformed but can be done almost immediately. So when the government insist everyone return to school (at the same time as insisting the adults return to office work), what are the children who have learned more and lived more under quarantine to think? Like a lot of things we’ve learned over the last five years, “everything is horribly, brutally possible” and all of this is only serving to amplify that idea. What was ‘normal’ is gone, so we should be taking this moment to radically rethink everything. And, as those who believed in the idea of free education at its inception knew, nothing would so profoundly reshape the future than drastic change to education. The lesson’s already been interrupted, let them play outside.

Leo Cookman is a writer and musician based in Kent. He is currently a researcher and writer of scripts for the YouTube channel Wisecrack, which boasts over two million subscribers. He has written for the Hong Kong Review of Books, Philosophy Now magazine and has written features on Philosophy and Theory for several other publications.

Leo’s poetry and fiction has been featured in various publications including Penguin’s ‘Poetry of Sex’, The Best of Manchester Poets, Ladybeard magazine, Eyewear Review, Living in the Future Magazine and more. He has self-published using more contemporary, innovative methods of distribution like his poetry collection published as a website (, his collection published as social media accounts on Instagram and Twitter (@darkchamberpoems), and has also published three conventional poetry pamphlets.

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