Let's replace School with Education

We need to escape from the idea that School is the only place where Education can take place - that, indeed, the two words are synonymous. They are not. We need to ask ourselves some fundamental questions: what is best for education, what do we want from it? What is best for learners, what do we want for them? School has a place in education. Home education is fine where parents have the time and resources, but it is not a practical proposition for most. Schooling is part of the foundation of learning. Groups of young children working with teachers adept at understanding and meeting their needs offer a good way of giving everyone an opportunity to learn how to be a co-operative member of society and of providing the basic essentials for learning.

School should begin as soon as the child is ready. This might be as soon as three or maybe not until six or seven years old. Progress through school should be determined by the child's readiness to move on, not by date of birth. Since not all children progress at the same rate in the same disciplines, they should climb the learning ladders towards a School Leaving Certificate at a rate appropriate to their ability in each discipline. At present, young people can leave school at sixteen with no qualification whatever.

The School Leaving Certificate should be designed to be achievable by the time the child is fourteen. It would be the hinge between 'school' and 'education'. It would be a certificate of competence to deal with the adult world, not a measurement of academic achievement. By this means, every child would earn the right to leave school. No one should be left as a prisoner of the system, serving out their sentence until they are released simply because, as happens now, they have become sixteen. With this approach, no one would leave school with nothing to show for it but a clutch of failed exams. Everyone would leave school boosted by an achievement that would be valued by all of society. The Certificate would demonstrate that each young person has a sufficient level of literacy and numeracy, and sufficient knowledge of social and cultural institutions, basic law and basic financial structures to cope constructively with the adult world. This would mean that no one would enter adult society without the knowledge and skills to become a fully independent member of it. Each of the (approximately eighteen) components of this rite of passage would be taken when the child is ready. At the age of fourteen, most, in the areas in which they have the greatest aptitude and interest, could have passed far beyond the Certificate's requirements. For example, a child with strong mathematical or linguistic abilities might well achieve all the necessary requirements for the School Leaving Certificate in those areas by the age of eleven or ten or even younger. By the time they leave 'school' at fourteen these pupils might have already achieved the standards required for GCSE, GNVQ, A-level or even beyond. If they have the ability to do it, there should be nothing to stop them from doing it.

No one should leave school without the School Leaving Certificate. After it is obtained, there need be no further requirement for anyone to go to 'school'. Instead, young holders of the Certificate may learn whatever they wish to learn from accredited teachers of their choice and be paid to do so. The only constraint on what they should learn would be that in each week they should put in at least one hour in each of five or six general learning areas. These might comprise Aesthetic/Cultural (art, dance, drama, design, history, music...), Creative (cooking, fashion, cabinet-making, theatre...), Physical - outdoor, (athletics, climbing, canoeing, Duke of Edinburgh Award...), Teamwork/Co-operative (community projects, team games, theatre productions, Young Enterprise...), Technical/Scientific (agriculture, botany, chemistry, engineering, IT, physics, plumbing...). At the age of sixteen might be added Service (community service, gardening, helping with young children, visiting the old or infirm, scouting, St John Ambulance...).

Many of these general areas can be followed in a number of ways and many overlap. But none need be accorded a higher or lower status than any other. All that should matter would be its value and suitability to the aspirations or the enrichment of the learner and the greater breadth it would give them as they encountered the possibilities of a full adult life. The effort, application, perseverance, persistence and achievement of the learners would be the most highly prized by the society they are preparing to enter.

School cannot provide the huge variety of learning opportunities necessary to meet the individual needs of each young person. We infantilise young people by confining them to these institutions. It's time we started treating them as the young adults they really are.