School's out, or is it?

In my first tutoring session with Tim*, a 14 year old, I asked him what he thought of school. ‘I hate it… I’m bored… it doesn’t excite me’, he told me.

At the time (a year ago), still fresh from graduating, I thought this was just a classic case of ‘yeah, but it’s cool to pretend school is crap, right?’. After all, plenty of my friends and myself went through education saying the same thing. However, several sessions later, it was clear this wasn’t a front to be fashionable. He was serious. School didn’t motivate him and he didn’t get anything from it.

Surprising? Probably not. A problem? Yes. My question then, is why?

Tim’s bright (on B’s and C’s at GCSE when we started), articulate and personable. And school gives you friends, teachers who got into the profession to inspire and a place to explore interesting content. So, what’s wrong?

Is it because kids don’t want to learn?

Arguably, but let’s consider Sugatra Mitra’s Hole in the Wall experiment. In 1999, Mitra put an internet-connected computer in a New Delhi slum. Without any knowledge in English or how to use a PC, the kids from the slum played around and taught themselves how to browse the web and basic English phrases. No supervision, no instruction, no curriculum. This suggests if pupils are put in an environment where learning can happen, it will happen.

Then, is it because teachers just don’t care?

This point is touted around time and time again. Teachers don’t care so pupils don’t care. The job is cushy and easy. But, one watch of the recent BBC3 series Tough Young Teachers, or going into a secondary school at 7pm shows this is absolutely untrue. Teachers definitely care. Most work way beyond office hours marking homework and devising killer lesson plans.

If it’s not teachers and it’s not the pupils then whose fault is it that Tim isn’t engaged?

My personal, if very biased opinion (feel free to slate. I’m @RobinChu1 on Twitter) is that neither are true. Instead it seems schools are just too stretched resource-wise to cater for each individual pupil.

With Ofsted requirements, schools are judged on academic targets. For instance, at a secondary such as Tim’s, the focus will be on getting as many pupils on A*-C’s at GCSE with a few exceptional case studies (e.g. One pupil received 11 A*’s etc). Broadly, this is the criteria schools are assessed on.

Therefore, in practice, top resources and staff time are pushed to those who are either struggling on a D/C grade borderline or those exceptionally talented on an A* grade. Looking through this lens, no wonder there is a demotivated squeezed middle which Tim falls under. After all, like a middle child in the family - the youngest gets the attention and the oldest the glory. In this case though, the ‘parent’ (school) can’t be blamed since they are only doing what strategically makes sense.

Moving forward, you might think I’m painting a bleak picture for the Tims of this world. Maybe – 10 years ago. Now – definitely not. The rise of technology and community engagement means schools are no longer limited to their finite resources. The goal to give each child, like Tim, a supported, personalised and attentive education is no longer a pipe dream anymore.

Some fantastic initiatives are already revealing the potential for lowering school walls to enthusiastic community members. The Brilliant Club are raising ambition and skills by getting PHD tutors to deliver university style seminars for pupils. Future First are bringing alumni back to their old school to share stories about their occupation. This is great in giving not just useful career information but relatable role models.

It’s the same with technology. Even Britain’s most well-known and traditional of schools in Eton, acknowledges that the new digital landscape calls for change. Partnering with Emerge Venture Lab, an education technology accelerator, Eton teachers will mentor the next generation of social entrepreneurs. That way, helping increase the amount of technology-focussed initiatives to tackle the major issues round education.

Likewise, WildSchool, the venture I have co-founded is a tutoring programme for disengaged students that merges offline workshops and one to one tutoring around a digital world. Based heavily on the US movement round “flipped teaching”, it aims to use technology and volunteers to give each pupil the personalised and attentive support they need to thrive.

So, while the problem of pupils not enjoying school is a very real problem. The solutions are not that far away.