As a schoolgirl, I have to confess that my mission was to do as little work as possible without getting into trouble. I did not come from a privileged background, but I was exposed to skilled teachers, passionate about their subjects and capable of instilling an understanding of what was possible.
I was pleasantly surprised when I got my O-level results and it crossed my mind that, with a little bit of work, I might do quite well. I became a workaholic, which is where and what, for good or ill, I remain.
I am fascinated by the variety of ages and stages at which people realise that education is a good thing. All teachers know that triggering motivation is the answer. If that were easy, it would be a very boring job and void of the greatest joy that the profession can give us: seeing the light come on – the moment of epiphany – in the eyes of a young person. Be the learner five or 50, that understanding and the elation that it brings is a reward that trumps all others.
Too often, education is seen more as a process to be endured than an inspiring gift that can enrich a person’s life for as long as it may last.
In the UK, we hear a lot about regulations, league tables, arguments over the curriculum and theories on how and why people should learn. In other parts of the world, the sheer joy of being educated still exists.
I recently travelled to Rwanda and visited a number of schools while I was there. It was truly humbling to see how much the children that I encountered valued the gift of education. They, and their parents, recognise the power that it carries and the doors of opportunity that it can open.
Those children relish wearing their uniforms, standing in line, joining in with sport, singing and whole-community activities – and their pride in being part of a school is heart-warmingly tangible.
In Rwanda, and many other countries, education has a collective joy about it that we have lost in the effort to ensure that each individual receives what we are required to deliver.
Many of the best schools in this country focus on the individual; meeting their needs, and helping them to gain the experience and qualifications they need to get through adult life successfully.
Maybe that’s not enough? Maybe we should see if we can learn from the enthusiasm in African schools – to define the ingredients that make education a great experience for all, regardless of age, ability or the part that they play in the process. We need to get away from the joyless notion of education as a burden and know it for the privilege that it is.
Sue Freestone is headteacher of King’s Ely in Cambridgeshire