Hitting it off at school

11th January 2008 at 00:00
One of the most popular internet searches starts with the phrase "I hate school". I tried it and got more than 42 million hits. Many of these contain fairly predictable complaints about the compulsory nature of schooling, the irrelevance of what has to be learnt and the perceived unfairness of teachers.

Some entries have clearly been penned in the wake of an emotional episode and might be regarded as a form of therapy. Others address issues such as the stress of examinations, bullying and peer-group pressure. What comes across is that school undoubtedly impacts on the lives of young people and that, for a significant number of them, it is not a particularly pleasant experience.

The same is true for some teachers. On one website, there is a rather feeble attempt at humour. Pupil: I hate school and I have to stay here until I'm 16.

Teacher: I know exactly how you feel and I have to stay here until I'm 60.

For many teachers, the opportunity to take early retirement would be attractive. I know of one who can reel off the precise number of days (excluding holidays and weekends) until he can put his feet up. This is not someone who has always been in the wrong job: he has had a fairly successful career in education and has made a valuable contribution within and beyond the classroom, working for many years for the Scottish Qualifications Authority. But he has had enough and now just wants out.

Perhaps the most common word to appear on the websites is "boring". It is, of course, an easy catch-all term, often used by youngsters to affect disinterest in whatever adults are trying to encourage them to do. Their street credibility would not be enhanced if they described school in enthusiastic terms.

The more thoughtful websites, however, try to explore the reasons for the alleged dullness of much of what goes on. They draw a distinction between "schooling" on the one hand and "learning" on the other. The hostility is not directed towards learning as such but to the institutional context in which it is promoted. Parents who teach their children at home recount stories of transforming school phobics into active and eager learners.

One website contains interesting statements from Nobel prizewinners who disliked school but who went on to achieve greatness in their chosen field. George Bernard Shaw wrote: "There is ... nothing on earth intended for innocent people so horrible as a school" and compared it (unfavourably) to prison. Winston Churchill said he could only learn if his reason, imagination or interest were engaged and that his school (Harrow) failed to recognise this. Albert Einstein recalled his schooling in Germany and Switzerland as an unhappy experience, objecting particularly to the "coercion" involved in examinations.

Schools are generally much more humane and caring places than they used to be but, from the perspective of some pupils, particularly older pupils, they are still perceived as primarily custodial in function.

Part of the problem is that teachers are subject to conflicting expectations: they are expected both to discipline and to liberate, to prepare for the realities of work and encourage self-expression, to transmit traditional values and to stimulate critical thinking.

However, there is some good news for teachers. An internet search using the phrase "I love school" produced 31 million hits.

Walter Humes is research professor in education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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