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What might education be?

A year ago I tweeted about wanting to hear the positive stories about children whose abilities had flourished during lockdown. I wasn’t overwhelmed, but I am sure those stories are there waiting to be observed, waiting to be told. School is not an answer, so absence of school is a chance for other, better things to flourish.

We have been enthralled here watching a Muscovy duck bring up nine ducklings. When the ducklings were just a day old, we modified the duckhouse by taking off the access door and putting chicken wire across to provide light and air. The mother duck kept escaping from this arrangement to go on forays of her own. We learnt later that muscovies can climb chicken wire using the claws at the end of their webbed feet. The duck would wait to be let back in, to be with her ducklings, and the ducklings would huddle together to wait for her return.

The first thing the duck did when we opened up the run was to take the ducklings for a swim in the pond. Then she took them for longer and longer expeditions: at four weeks they were going right across the adjacent field with its long grass and steep slopes. This is not a safe environment; one of the drakes was savagely killed by a fox the other night, and the drakes are fierce fifteen-pound birds. The mother will pause on her expeditions for the ducklings to explore and then they will reform a line.

We messed up too. In a second brood a duck had made her nest in the henhouse. Don’t ask! Anyway, a single duckling hatched and had three mothers competing to be the one: the duck, a sussex hen and a silkie. We had read that the duckling(s) and mother needed their own safe space, so we caught the duckling and with some trouble caught the silkie who the duckling seemed most attached to — the duckling would burrow into her feathers for warmth. We transferred them to another small shed and put a run on the front the next day.

The duckling seemed determined to explore further than the run, in the very long grass that surrounded it, and the silkie couldn’t follow because she could get through the gaps in the run. We rescued the duckling several times but then she disappeared for good. We let the silkie out hoping she would help us find the duckling who she had been keeping warm for days. Instead, she found our chicken tractor with 20 meat chickens in it, already several times her size. And then having made her new home she wouldn’t go back with the other hens.

This is all real education, for the ducklings primarily but for us too. We have read various helpful books, but they can be as misleading as they are helpful. In considering what education might actually be, I think we need to keep our duckling feet on the ground.


You may remember the Three Mile island nuclear reactor failure. A large part of not containing it was that there were so many meters and dials and information in the control room that the key issues were missed. We just went through this without the meters.

There are two adjoining houses here and in one the electricity system went haywire, with random things tripping out the earth RCD in the meter box. It involved our new solar PV system and the engineers for that were all pinged. We arm-twisted a retired electrician to try and get back to sanity, he spent a day without really pinning anything down.

Then we ran out of water. We have our own borehole and a pump which fills a tank on the hill, or in this case didn’t. With hindsight the electrical fault was a split pipe fitting, spraying water over the rather amateur electrics in the pump house. But running out of water like that: no loos, no washing machine or dishwasher, no water for the many animals and pot plants — it gets stressful really fast.

We had no real information about the borehole except that it hadn’t given any problems in 50 years. We replaced the pump and redid the wiring and plumbing and still didn’t get water in the taps. Sleepless night trying to interpret.

I sorted it. Another dodgy pipe joint was drawing in air. But the education point is this: how to get to the meat of a problem and deal with the necessary detail. How to react appropriately to the stress and the people and animals depending on me (in this instance). What does education look like that allows appropriate responses? Remember the engineers at Three Mile Island were extremely well educated and trained. I know this at least: that dealing with technical problems under stress is very different to merely understanding the technical issues. And in a rural community with very limited numbers of people with relevant expertise, part of the issue is to remain friends with the people you may come to depend on in an emergency.

Politics and science

Most people associate, at least implicitly, education and knowledge of facts. Or equivalently with qualifications based on testing one’s knowledge of such things. It is a view that implies that there are experts who know the right answers, and that educating people joins them into these dominant narratives.

I once started going through the motions of acquiring some financial advice qualifications, the better to be able to defend some advocacy work I was doing. Quite early in the notes I had to learn was the idea that banks are intermediaries between savers and borrowers. This is wrong and has always been wrong. It is not just factually incorrect but shows a misunderstanding of the nature of money and the political and economic role of banks. I simply gave up.

We could go through a list of things you might learn in a formal way and whether they are likely to be correct or merely establishment and conventional. We have rehearsed endlessly that nutritional science is corrupt and diametrically opposed to the facts. Even leading doctors have given up on PHEngland. Similarly, agriculture and its views on soil. And climate science is largely corrupt as well. Public health has a tendency to produce damaging outcomes. Whatever. The pandemic has taken this effect to previously unknown heights.

This is not random error. People who do not believe in evolution get invitations to promote their views in UK schools where other people would not. Bank officials get invited to teach financial skills. There is an establishment of accepted views that cannot be easily challenged. What I am after here is how education can happen, what it might be, that would allow people to get to grips with real world duckling skills without being impeded by false narratives.

As a multi-generational farmer, James Rebanks was subverted by government and industry advice away from practices he has found subsequently to work. See his English Pastoral. Many of the unschool texts say how much unlearning there is to do before an effective education and practice can take hold.


Arguably, there used to be such a thing as basic education: arithmetic, reading, and writing maybe. James Rebanks got to Oxford University without learning to write at school. We need to remember Paolo Freire saying that for slum kids in Brazil, words need to mean what they want them to mean until they have understood the political ramifications of official meanings.

This situation is now infinitely worse. Every politically significant meaning is contested and subverted by disinformation and culture wars. There are no facts that can stand as neutral edifices or landmarks and politicians are happy to be ignorant, like the then Foreign Secretary not knowing that most UK trade went through Dover, or even where Dover was. The leadership position is that, if you have power, you can make it up as you go along.

This applies to seriously intelligent adults as well. I wrote to Sue Pritchard when she was forming the Food Farming and Countryside Commission at the RSA. I said that she could not do the project because the RSA was too establishment, too cosy with power. Sure enough, she was not able to understand that all the public health models of what we should eat have been corrupted. What has been in many ways excellent work is invalidated by not understanding people’s real nutritional requirements.

Similarly, I corresponded with Prof Trish Greenhalgh at Oxford about nutritional ketosis. If keto diets can reverse diabetes and obesity, then the fundamental biochemistry of clinical research is wrong. And, if the majority of the population is actually metabolically challenged, then all clinical trial results are flawed in their very basis. Trish was gracious enough to say that the data isn’t in yet, but I haven’t seen anyone pick this up properly: the master narrative and all the funding that follows is too powerful. Of course, the pandemic has shown this was perhaps the biggest opportunity of all time. Flunked.

To be fair on my Geology degree at Oxford, I was given two gifts in this direction. We studied some politically inspired Soviet geology to see what erudite research butting up to dogma might look like. I think the Soviets at that time didn’t like continental drift theories. And in the viva following my finals, the external examiner blew me away by asking what was wrong with the course I had just completed. Wow! Can you actually conceive of trying to build and educational system with more such gifts?

Warm data again

We have some grossly large meat-chickens at the moment — they are due to go it the pot and the freezer. I have never seen such big ungainly birds. If I go to their chicken tractor with a watering can and a bucket of feed, they mill around and jostle to be first to feed and drink. If I go with a net to catch one, they cower at the back of the tractor, and the biggest cockerels who are first to be slaughtered bury themselves in the midst of the other chickens to evade capture.

These incredibly stupid and clumsy birds, who have never had freedom to explore and learn, know exactly what is going on. It is this sense of the real and the vital and the present risk that we lose to all the master narratives which are designed to keep us stupid. As a metaphor, consider how aristocracy have always kept the nutritious food to themselves: hunting rights and the best beef. The commoners are only allowed food that keeps them relatively weak in body and mind. The parameters are different now with the importance of money to power, but even the Medicis were there.

Nora Bateson’s work on warm data reminds us that truth resides in a complex web of interconnections and relationships. It is warm because it is inherently emotional and instinctual. It is deeply embedded in our psyches and in modern society we really struggle to recover it. This is why there are no reliable experts: no-one, as Wittgenstein said, can wear my hat for me.

I did a course with Nora on which the participants practiced their skills in synaesthesia. I drew a picture of the smell of basil, which turned out curiously similar in colour scheme and structure to someone else’s effort. It felt really weird and challenging.

So, any education that will allow people to be more effective citizens than the last generation cannot possibly look like schooling — schooling is not education now. John Raven found consistently that the democratic mandate for education is just a notion of progress: better thinking than last time round. We are closer in the pandemic politics to locking people up for their heretical independent thought and action than we are to valuing warm data and the life skills that count to ducklings — i.e., you must be mad and an unspoken threat to me if you do not follow the master narrative that I do.



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Aidan Ward

Aidan Ward


Smallholder rapidly learning about the way the world works