The priority for schools should be to help children discover and develop their talents and innate qualities from an early age, according to a conference on human values in education held in Tlaxcala, Mexico, last week.
The conference arose out of a deep concern about globally rising levels of disillusion, unemployment and self-destruction in children leaving school.
The meeting consisted of teachers and representatives of schools from eight countries, including Cuba, Colombia, Austria, Indonesia and Ecuador. The conference, sponsored by the French charity the Guerrand Herm s Foundation, highlighted the need for school staff to respect children, to acknowledge their natures and help them develop innate talents.
For example, at the Pestalozzi school for five to 18-year-olds in Ecuador, children start occasional work in the community when they are 10, and can become apprentices at 13 with local businesses. More importantly, children learn autonomy and self-direction from the beginning, as they are free to choose their activities within a "prepared environment", based on a hands-on approach using Montessori materials and practical work such as cooking and carpentry.
According to the Pestalozzi school, this environment nurtures children who are confident and capable. Last year children, including 13 and 14-year-olds, went on a 6,000-kilometre bicycle trek across the Andes and Venezuela into Brazil.
"We are not interested in education," said Mauricio Wild, co-founder of the school with his wife Rebecca. "We are interested in respecting innate life processes and providing adequate experiences that integrate children with themselves and the world."
Another school making a difference in its community is Colegio Amor in the slum area of Soacha, Colombia. Most of its 500 pupils are displaced children, facing a high incidence of drug addiction and violence in the community. As well as providing educational programmes for whole families such as drug prevention and communication skills, the school has what it calls the Educational Micro-entrepreneurial Project.
Children are given vocational counselling, as well as entrepreneurial training in marketing and administration. This means they can work in the school's bakery, the fruit and dairy enterprise, and dressmaking and computer centres. They are also given courses in human development, which focus on social skills. Colegio Amor was recently awarded "Best Practice" status by the UN.