In the late 1980s central government started seizing control of education, and subsequently extended their powers – and their responsibilities – by over-ruling the power of local education authorities.  This was a bad move for democracy because local government was the traditional place for aspiring national politicians to cut their teeth.  At the same time government began to denigrate the views of any educationalists who articulated ideas that didn’t fit their current political aspirations.

Politicians have, in effect, plunged education into a deep hole of their own making out of which they now seem incapable of digging themselves.  The public, who have been told by politicians for many years that the crisis in education was due to the slovenly performance of teachers and schools, are now beginning to turn and are putting the blame for the inadequacies of education onto the politicians.  The problem goes back a long time.  In conversations around a family dinner table, youngsters complain about the endless regime of tests, worksheets and uninspiring teachers. Their parents remember the chaos of the early days of comprehensive education with schools on split sites, and teachers uncertain of what they were doing.  If a grandparent enters the conversation he or she will recount the horrors of the Eleven Plus examination in the 1960s whereby three in every four pupils failed to get to grammar school and were sent instead to the ‘uncertain’ secondary modern.  If the family is fortunate to have a great grandparent around they will remember pre-war days when there simply was no schooling beyond fourteen other than for the privileged elite.  Such family conversations quickly come around to questioning whether any politician ever stops to see where their proposals fit into a bigger and more ongoing concept of education.  Here is the danger; when the electorate really begin to lose faith in politicians, democracy is in grave danger of collapsing.  That is the problem which England now has to face.

When I was studying education in Trinity College, Dublin in the 1960s, our professor had a very homely definition of education.  He told us that a quality education resulted from the balance that would be achieved in a three-legged stool which, unlike a four-legged chair, could balance on any surface, however rough.  Balance, that is, providing the legs were of equal length – and he told us that those legs were the home, the community and school.  If any one leg grew too long the whole chair was thrown out of balance.  That is the problem in English education today.  Listening to that metaphor an earnest senior education official noted in 2007 that the three legs had now been replaced by a stool with effectively two legs – one called school and the other called government.  Then she added, apologetically, “home has almost disappeared, and we don’t have to worry about community any longer.”  Inadvertently, I think she described the predicament of English education better than anyone else.

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This lecture, based on the soon to be published book Overschooled but Undereducated: Society’s failure to understand adolescence describes the predicament of the English education system.  It is a predicament to be found to varying degrees in a number of other English-speaking countries.  And ‘predicament’ it surely is – a difficult, unpleasant and embarrassing situation – for a country’s failure to nurture so many of its young people, from birth through adolescence to early adulthood, reflects badly on all of us.  Such a predicament reflects a much weakened sense of civil society.  Too much of what should be the normal responsibilities of individuals has been passed to, and apparently willingly accepted,  by parliamentarians and turned into legislative prescription.  The truth is that schools neither need more money, nor politically-imposed prescription, anything like as much as they need parents and communities who are equal but gloriously different partners in the creation of a world fit for children.

If western society is to survive (and it really is as serious as that), it is essential that all those involved with young people escape from that assumption made a hundred years ago by early psychologists, that adolescence is an aberration, something which is an inconvenience – an irrelevance which has to be got over.  Recent research in cognitive science and neurobiology suggests that apprenticeship was a culturally-appropriate response to the neurological changes in the adolescent brain.  Adolescence was a form of intellectual weaning whereby the more skillful and thoughtful the apprentice became, the less dependent he or she would be on the teacher.  As the German philosopher Nietzsche put it succinctly “It is a poor teacher whose pupils remain dependent on him”.  That is a truth which we have to recover.

While the human brain has evolved to enable each of us to function effectively in complex situations – we naturally think big, and act small – modern education has become side-tracked into creating specialists who are well-qualified in their own disciplines, but nothing like as good at seeing the wider impact of their action.  Because formal education has done its best to neutralise the impact of adolescence, recent generations of young people have been deprived of the strength that comes from knowing that they are not frightened of taking difficult decisions, and if necessary picking up the pieces when things go wrong.  Society has effectively lost the plot: adolescence is an opportunity, not a threat.  Understand that, and it changes everything.

An education system that truly went with the natural way in which people learn – I call it “going with the grain of the brain” – would prepare children in their younger and prepubescent years for the self-defining struggle that is adolescence.  Milton understood this most clearly back in 1644.  There is a delightful story which illustrates this well.  A man seeing a butterfly struggling on the sidewalk to break out of its now useless cocoon, bent down and with his pocketknife carefully cut away the cocoon and set the butterfly free.  To the man’s dismay the butterfly flapped its wings weakly for a while, then collapsed and died.  A biologist later told him that this was the worst thing he could have done because the butterfly needed this struggle to develop its muscles to enable it to fly.  “By robbing the butterfly of the struggle, you inadvertently made him too weak to live”, the biologist explained.

Every child in the twenty-first century needs the struggle of adolescence to sort themselves out in just the way that Shakespeare’s generation did in the late sixteenth century.  Only by sorting themselves out can adolescents put away those childish behaviours which earlier had served them well.  Sometimes alone, often with their peers and supported by the guidance of wise and caring adults, adolescents need a careful mixture of guidance – and plenty of space to work things out for themselves.  Give me land, lots of land… don’t fence me in, sang Cole Porter in the 1960s in what could be seen as the signature tune of adolescents – don’t fence me in.  It is through the struggle of adolescence that youngsters develop the strength for adult life.  To waste adolescence is to deny future generations the strength essential to deal with the ever changing scenes of life.