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  • Writer's pictureThe Old Farmyard Forceleap Farm

School on the farm!

As I explained in my first blog from Zambia, Donna and Doug (our hosts) took their two girls out of school when their son Dan tragically died 4 years ago. Initially this was a short-term coping strategy, to protect the girls and family at such a difficult time. But it has now developed into an impressive home-schooling outfit, and they intend to stick with it for the rest of the girl’s education. So, it is no longer just a stop gap primary school thing, but a long-term replacement to mainstream secondary school. This has thrown up a lot of questions about education for me, as well as presented me with new possibilities, that I have not considered before. First thing to say is what it is not. It is utterly different from an alternative education for excluded kids, or a hippy outpost for alternative living, or the covid nightmare we all think of at the mention of home schooling! It is also not isolated as they participate in many things in the community and see friends their own age all the time.

Donna employs a teacher to deliver the curriculum and so is not the teacher as well as Mum. The curriculum she has chosen is particularly literature based and learning is project focused. It is definitely not an easy option for the kids. Mikey was complaining the other day that his teacher Kayleigh is super strict, as every time he finishes some work, he is given more to do straight away… perfect from my point of view, but perhaps not so great from his, after all there is nowhere to hide in a class of 4!! (not including the dogs who are residents in the classroom, much to Mikey's delight!!)

When I asked Donna to explain her reasoning behind this decision, (in the face of quite a bit of opposition from family and friends) her answers have left me questioning some of my fundamental beliefs about the purposes of education. I am quite sure that most parents agonise about their children’s schooling, probably more than almost anything else, and most feel their decisions will be heavily judged. I think that any sane parent would agree that education is extremely important, and few would want to limit their children’s prospects in adult life by allowing them to end up poorly educated, but beyond that, what does an educated person actually look like, and who is responsible for producing them. Over the last 200 years, I guess school as developed into this role of moulding our children into educated adults, with a bit of help from home on the side, and to this end it has universally, become the dominant activity of childhood. But does it work? Are our 18-year-olds educated? It depends on what your definition of “educated” is, what does success look like? As far as I can see, in mainstream education these days, the main (and in some ways the only) measure of successful schools is exam results, leading to university entrance. In this regard more kids are going to university than ever before, so education is working, right? But is that it? As more people go to university, the value of a general degree is in decline, you need a Master’s now, if not a PHD, to get the same academic kudos as you once did with a bachelor’s. If you want to have an academic job, you will still need a degree, but most of us don’t, and let’s face it, demand is highest among the trades with huge dearth of electricians and plumbers for example. So, with university costs rising, employment prospects of graduates declining and the cost: benefit analysis of having a degree shifting, should university entrance really be the default indicator of success for schools?

But, if you don’t measure success by tests, what should it look like? Ultimately education should equip young people with the skills and resilience to face the reality of the life they are likely to lead. They should be problem solvers, motivated, curious, and dare I say happy! If this is the case, then the current deplorable mental health and suicide rates amongst our young people suggest our system is failing badly. I interview kids from the local secondary school for work experience sometimes. I am often struck that, despite being very polite and nice, they are absolutely useless. Their lack of accountability for their performance is mind blowing. They tend to apologise for their lack of experience, assuming I feel, that this excuses their tardiness and idleness for the rest of their placement. At their first job interview, I would like my kids to be able to look a potential employer in the eye, give them a firm handshake, and be able to convince them that they have a good work ethic, good communication skills, and a desire to learn. This sentiment is not surprising coming from me, as someone who left school at 16 with pretty much a nervous breakdown, but I don’t want that for my boys! I must admit I am very sceptical about school’s ability to prepare one for life (I would say it is more likely to ruin it!). I am fully aware that this is due to my own experiences, but are we not all swayed by our own history? If you loved school or had a great time at university, I can quite see that, if you think it would suit them, you might want that for your kids, but I am more sceptical.

Back to Zambia and Donna’s home schooling here on the farm. They do such a variety of things with Kayleigh their teacher in the school room in the garden. They go from intensive academics, to running around outside, and it looks fun! They are currently learning about the Eastern hemisphere, and so tried to make Chinese dumplings the other day. They were disgusting but, watching them all try to eat them with chopsticks was hysterical!

They have made fossils in science, done a scavenger hunt around the garden and then made a still life composition with the things they found for art. Everything that happens on the farm is a potential learning opportunity. Last week a game hunter came to the farm and shot 1 Kudu, 1 Impala and 1 Ostrich. He took the meat with him, but Doug saved the hearts for school.

A couple of days later when the vet came to the farm to see the cattle, she popped into school to dissect the three hearts with the kids. They learned all about hearts, how they work, why they sometimes don’t work etc. They were so engaged, and Mikey now wants to be a vet!

Every afternoon they do activities out of the classroom, be that biking, hiking, carpentry, shooting, sewing, cooking, camping or voluntary service. It is obviously tricky to do team sports within school hours, but they are starting a hockey team outside school and are in training for a big bike race in Zambia. Their classroom time is intense, but as a result, they do not need to spend as much time there. This gives so much time for wiggly bottoms to move! Everything is about encouraging them to be imaginative, want to learn and giving them life skills, rather than some test. As Doug said, in the next 50 years, it is extremely likely they will be faced with some crisis or other. He is determined that his kids will be prepared for the realities of life, so be able to handle money, run a business, use a gun, sew their cloths, grow their food, fix the car, and look after their family, as well as be able to get a normal job. I feel like I have been given a glimpse into a fresh approach to education with a focus on preparing them for the life they are likely to lead, which is NOT going to be the same as our lives.

But it is not just me questioning the status quo. Within the wider commercial farmers and expat community here, there is a great deal of debate about this home education approach v conventional school. Many kids here are home schooled as they live out on remote farms, but many also go to a fairly traditional private boarding school up the road, and some do a mix of the two. Like many schools in the UK, the school here is seeing ever increasing numbers of unhappy or stressed out kids, being diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, as well as conditions such as ADHD and so on. So many parents (and teachers) are asking, is school “educating” or “harming” these children. The problem is that normal mass education in school is all about containing, controlling, predicting, and measuring performance and so forces everyone into a box. One of my favourite sayings is that “It is very uncomfortable being put in a pigeonhole, unless you happen to be a pigeon!” Widely quoted in this debate is the most popular TED talk of all time, that of Sir Ken Robinson entitled “Is school killing creativity”. If you have not seen it, I thoroughly recommend it, as a thought-provoking talk. I am certainly left thinking, there is something very wrong with our current approach of educating some boys, especially at secondary school level. Are we as parents being lemmings, blindly playing follow the leader?

Finally, I guess it is really all about trying to do what is right for your own children. My boys are both thriving at our village school at home, but that finishes at 11 years, so, what next? I am fairly confident that Mikey will rub along with whatever system I expose him to, but like most small boys he struggles to sit still in school all day, and has loved the practical nature of the program here, especially learning about nature. But for Toby I see trouble ahead in school. He is really an original thinker, questions everything, always thinks he can do things better and hates to be told what to do and how to think, but alongside this he has quite low self-esteem and loses confidence very easily. He will struggle to conform and follow other people’s codes, especially where he thinks they are wrong, or where he could make them better. He will rile against the system, and this is likely to make him unhappy, he definitely isn’t a pigeon! But the question is, how important is it to learn how to conform within an institution and to rub along with others, or is the price to be paid in terms of bashing down their individuality too high? Also, if I really believe school would be wrong for him, what can, or should I do about it? Should I be a lemming or dare I think differently? I am not sure, but I have much enjoyed at least having the opportunity, and exposure, to this completely alternative approach to school. Interesting!

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