**This post contains some opinion-spouting and a footnote; old habits die hard. You have been warned.**
Walking home from school/nursery drop-offs this morning, I was musing again on the Problem with School and its possible solutions. The argument that mass-production schools fail many of our children has been bubbling away in my mind for ages; as I considered it again today I came up with an analogy.
If you’ve ever fitted out a kitchen or bought a new cooker, fridge or dishwasher you’ll know that off-the-shelf units and white goods come in standard sizes – worktops tend to be the same depth, cupboards come in fixed sizes, appliances are designed to fit these pre-determined proportions. It makes mass-producing kitchen fittings much more profitable, and it makes buying kitchen fittings much easier (which in turn makes their manufacture and sale easier). But what do you do if you have a kitchen that isn’t a standard size?
When we bought our first home ten years ago it needed a total refit – it was damp and cold, with rotten floors, no heating and no kitchen to speak of at all. We lived with a collection of wonky cupboards and wobbly worktops for several months while trying to figure out the best way to use the tiny, narrow space that we had – on a tiny, narrow budget – and spent too many hours scouring internet and real-life DIY shops. The problem was very simple: our kitchen was too narrow for standard sized cupboards, worktops or sinks. Try as we might, we just couldn’t get the stuff to fit the space. We could have compromised and left ourselves a teeny-tiny galley to walk through, cook in and wash in up, but that would have been difficult every day.
So we came up with a bespoke solution. As it happens, this was very easy to do with the help of a joiner friend and his circular saw – we just cut a couple of inches off the backs of our units and lime-washed a couple of slender pieces of timber (just deep enough for our collection of jars) for shelves. The solution was simple and elegant, but had never been suggested by any of the kitchen companies or DIY stores we asked for advice – they all expected us fit round their standard size cupboards regardless of how impractical or inappropriate that was. The solution we needed just wasn’t available from a mainstream supply chain – our non-standard room needed non-standard cupboards.
I’m pretty sure you can guess where this is going… I don’t know many “standard” children, and I’m sure not many parents would happily characterise their own kids as being bog-standard, just like everybody else’s; we cherish their individuality and personalities in every other sphere of life, but not, it seems, in school. So how can we expect our industrial education system to produce education that is appropriate to all our non-standard children’s needs?
There seems, however, to be a very clear message that – like the DIY shops – it is up to us to live with the inconvenience of an ill-fitting solution. Sure, some children are completely happy in their normal, mainstream schools. Just like some houses come with kitchens that fit their space neatly. But what about the non-standard ones? Surely if we want an education that fits all our children there should be something more nuanced than the current ‘take it or leave it’ discourse. If we’re all paying for our kids to be educated (which most of us are) then surely the thing that we’re paying for should fit their needs.
Arguably, with a growing population and most parents pressing need to work outside the home with their children in daycare or school we still need a mass-produced education “product” – we can’t all go bespoke and hand-made with our kids’ schooling. But wouldn’t it be great if educationalists could take some lessons from the courage and innovation of the industrialist pioneers of mass customisation?
Take your smartphone – the hundreds and hundreds of customisation options will make it a completely different device to your friend who has the same model with hundreds of different customisations. But as with kitchens, so with schools – you can choose any schooling you want as long as it’s standardised. As adult consumers and citizens we come increasingly to expect customised experiences of our engagement with the world; to be treated as individuals. I wonder when we can expect the same for our children – our wonderful, non-standard, entirely original children.
Which in itself beget a whole ‘nother debate about whether it is industrialisation per se that is the problem or just our Western capitalist interpretation of it – just as the problem with food and fatness seems to be more about the highly profitable sale of processed sugar/fat treats so the problem with school may be that the current capitalist system relies on it for engendering compliance and facilitating work-attendance. Just a thought.