Is education really the key?

The story of Malala Yousafzai’s courageous protest is one that has transpired over a number of years now. Incase you don’t know about it, here is a very long story, short: In Pakistan, a girl’s right to her education was taken away from her by the Taliban. Rebelliously she travelled to school anyway and was shot in the head. She miraculously survived and now stands as an inspirational educational, feminist and human rights figure. What she did will never be forgotten and will forever raise questions of the importance of education in any society.

Recently the students at my school were asked a challenging question: if their right to an education was taken away from them, would they do what Malala Yousafzai did and go to school anyway, risking their life? The results were telling.

77% of year 7 students said that they WOULD go to school anyway. Some of their reasons included: “everyone should have the choice to an education, learning and making new friends everyday” and “you have to stand up for what you believe in… your voice is the most powerful weapon. If you don’t do anything about your future or the future of others, what will change?” Some reasons for not going to school were understandable. They explained that they would be too frightened of being killed; they wouldn’t even leave their homes. In contrast, the outcome for our year 11 students — those who are about to be released into the “real world” — was disheartening. Only 38% of students said that they WOULD go to school, leaving 62% stating that they wouldn’t. I was disheartened by their response due to the reasons that they gave. Fair enough if they were afraid of being killed, but what they attached to their reasons proves that ignorance is rife in the Western, first world, and that perhaps, as educators, we are not doing our job properly. One student detailed that “you go to school because you want a good future but if you get shot and die then you wouldn’t have any future. If I wanted an education that badly, I would have found another way to do it”. Another student outlined that “over time the education system would [have] changed… giving her a chance to go to school again”. These responses worry me because it is clear that they are greatly unaware of the state of countries afflicted by war, poverty and terror. It worries me because they believe that these young people would be able to go back to school when it ‘all blows over’ or that they should try harder to access knowledge elsewhere. They don’t understand the long-standing effects on education that conflict and radical ideologies place upon societies. They don’t understand the responsibilities to change it. Instead they believe that we can just wait for it to change. One of the most interesting parts of this poll is that the students who have been educated for a lesser amount of time are talking about our voices being the most powerful weapon for change. This raises an important question about what educators are doing to challenge the privileged perspectives of our students.

Before they completed their poll, I asked my year 7’s if they knew whether or not going to school in England was compulsory. They weren’t sure. I explained to them that in this country, it was illegal to fail to attend school. The government knew if you were going or not, and IF you come to school for less than 95% of the time, your family would be given a fine. Why? Because the government believes that if a society is educated, then it is successful. Education is the key. When my students don’t realise that what they have is GIVEN to them, I worry. This is normal for a first-world nation — although and of course, it shouldn’t be.

Our job as educators is to inspire and encourage students to reach their full potential. We also want to foster creative individuals who are aware of their self-worth and have a personal identity. This is all for the greatest goal: to ensure that they become active and informed citizens who are conscious of their moral, local and global responsibilities as human beings. This all sounds good, right? But based on the results of the poll, I question whether teachers are adhering to this responsibility. I know I’m not. It’s difficult to support these developments when the education system places more importance on knowledge acquisition and facts rather than personal and social growth.

So, just how effective is this ‘free’ education and what is the real cost? How easy is it to teach students to think for themselves? In a governed and political system like education, doing such seems to be for one outcome: to pass an exam so that they can prove something to the rest of the world. In British schools (and many other schools, I’m sure), there is a push for students to make what they call ‘progress’. It’s like a religious term that teachers spit out all the time. Little Johnny might ask, ‘Miss, why do I need to know this?’ and my answer might be that ‘well, little Johnny, it’s very important that you know this so that you can do well on your exam and make progress… and prove to the government that I’M doing my job properly so that we can prove to the world that we’re an intelligent society that knows lots of stuff’ (I won’t really say this, of course, but I feel like this is supposed to be my aim). I often try to avoid the word. I want to make sure that what my students learn is in some way applicable to the world that they live in. I don’t want my students to complete their GCSE exams and believe that their entire future depends on it, because it doesn’t. What I want my students to know is that there is a world out there that needs their help — their nation needs their help. Education is the greatest tool that we should use to teach people just HOW to do that.

Upon looking up the definition of ‘education’ in the Oxford dictionary (apparently that’s a pretty good one), it states that education is ‘the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction’. Just to break it down a little more, ‘systematic’ is described as something that is ‘done or acted according to a fixed plan or system’. Does this not seem problematic to you? Schools are required to follow a politically-driven curriculum devised by people who sit in ivory towers who — I’ll add — were probably never teachers. These people have agendas (or regimes) that need to be followed, and what better way to indoctrinate a society than through its greatest asset: education. We — as teachers — are puppets on strings and we fear the axe, so we best not indulge in free-thinking and follow instructions, lest our pay is lowered or worse.

The last definition that the Oxford dictionary lists for education, almost as a whispered aside, is that education is also ‘an enlightening experience’ — as it should be. You know, I think Western education systems try to make it so. They publish documents about the national values that need to be addressed in our lessons whilst we try to meet ten other educational and curricular standards (England is not the only nation to do this). We offer 15-minute segments four times a week to discuss what it means to be a better person (this is a vague way of putting it). You can’t teach someone to question the world that they live in or encourage students to pursue what is right in this amount of time. I want these discussions to have an immense impact, but I’m afraid their minds might be filled with what they’re told are greater priorities.

The ability to cram enough knowledge into your brain in order to pass an exam isn’t really going to get anyone very far. It seems as if the real aim of whomever is in political power at whatever time is to feed their nation with information that will keep them in power. Did you know that last year the UK attempted to lower its voting age to 16?* This would be quite an investment, when at the moment, 16 year olds aren’t very adept when it comes to thinking for themselves. Let’s just take a moment to consider what 16 year olds actually care about. How do they spend their time? I think you’ll agree when I say that most of them are not conducting research into policies or world views. In my experience, they’re very quick to adopt any opinions that are fed to them. It would be very easy to convince them that they have a real opinion when they actually don’t.

We should all know that the real aim of government and education is to better a nation and invest into its future. As a government and as educators, we want to encourage creative and autonomous problem-solvers. We would want better bankers (who are filled with integrity) to look after money more efficiently. We would want better lawyers and judges to uphold the law, to keep people accountable and rid a society of corruption. We would want better entrepreneurs who can invent structures that are going to bring wealth to a nation and further, the world. How could these contributions be more energy efficient, or how could they ensure that our environment is protected? We would want people who understand, appreciate and interact with the world around us effectively. This is good education.

So while our education is free and we’re forced to obtain it, what are we actually learning to do? Do we know how to make this world and country a better place? Do we know how to question the information that we’re fed? Or rather, do we know how to effectively follow regiments? Let’s face it: once we leave school we are active citizens… and we need to know how to do what we’re told.

* If you want more information and debates on this, find them here:

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