The Myth of the “Good School”

One of the most frustrating things about working in education is that everyone is an expert. Because most people have spent so many years of their lives in school, they believe that they have a sound understanding of what constitutes a quality education. The delusion is perfectly understandable. It would be justifiable to have experienced a good teacher and to infer from that what meaningful teaching and learning should look like. More likely, everyone has experienced enough bad teaching to infer from the experience what meaningful teaching and learning should look like. The problem is that they are all wrong.


Even the very best teachers are merely making the best of a hugely problematic system, and until the system changes, there can never be “good schools”. So when the media periodically raises the question of which South Africa’s top schools are, I get annoyed. It is like asking the question: which is the best Jim Carrey film. First, by which criteria do you wish to make such a judgment – cinematography? Plot? Music score? Acting? Script-writing? And second, the question misses the fundamental point that the all of the films in question are fatally flawed because they star Jim Carrey. Likewise, to answer the already ridiculous question of which the top schools are, we would need to know by which criteria we are being asked to judge, all the while cognisant of the fact that all our schools are merely (if operating optimally) making the best of a hugely imperfect and obsolete system.


In South Africa, where I live, for example, many schools are judged by the results produced by their sports teams. It defies logic that any parent should decide to enrol their child (probably nowhere near being gifted enough to be considered for a place in the aforementioned sports team)in a particular academic institution simply because of the sporting prowess of a handful of its less academically-inclined members. But many parents do.


It would be equally ridiculous, though, to measure a school’s merit by the number of distinctions its pupils achieve in the final examinations. Year after misguided year, in South Africa, the newspapers print the pictures of the pupils who achieve the greatest number of distinctions in the final examinations, on their front pages, and – no less importantly – which schools these pupils attended. This can be – and often is – manipulated by the schools, who provide access only to pupils who will inflate the school’s results. The truth is that any half-wit could teach a distinction candidate and that pupil would still produce distinctions. It says nothing for the quality of the academic instruction if a pupil produces an ‘A’. If you were determined to use examination results as a measure of quality teaching, you would be better off tracking the growth of the school’s entire cohort of pupils over a number of years, as reflected in their performance in standardised international benchmark tests. I certainly would not judge the quality of teaching and learning in a school by the performance of a handful of exceptionally talented pupils in a once-off, high stakes paper.


Nor should we be tempted to judge a school’s success by the percentage of pupils who have gained admission into university. Where I come from, schools will proudly boast that every year 90% of their pupils are eligible for admission into university degrees. In fact, the assumption that providing access to universities is the final goal of all schooling sickens me to the core. The truth is that there is nowhere in the world where the majority of school leavers go to university. Even in wealthy nations, the figure is around 40%. In South Africa it is 16%. Yet we continue to stress the importance of going to university. Our educational agendas serve an elite minority, despite the fact that most of our schools contain somewhere in their mission statements a clause to the effect that they value each child as an individual and strive to develop each child holistically.


Schools need to be – first and foremost – places of learning. As a society, we need to start asking ourselves what kinds of learning we value, and to what end. Because until society at large starts to shift the way it looks at education, nothing will change. We cannot place the onus on schools to do so. In a capitalist, consumerist society, schools will always serve the agendas of those who pay the bills. Money usually speaks more loudly than principles. As long as parents want distinctions and university access from schools, school managers will gear their policies and procedures to meeting that need. As long as government is obsessed with pass rates, schools will merely prepare pupils for examinations instead of actually educating them.


So at the moment, schooling – pretty much anywhere in the world I care to look – seems to serve a privileged elite. Those who do not gain access to universities see themselves as failures, because often the system regards them that way. At least tacitly. And, frankly, many schools do not deliberately and consciously construct systems that empower and enskill these young people, although many claim to. If schools do attempt to structure programmes for them, the programmes are usually aimed at trying to give them a fighting chance of getting into university. Seldom is it even a consideration that most pupils will not attend university, and that the school has a duty to equip them to handle a universityless world. Almost invariably, whether explicitly or implicitly so, a school’s public discourse is around pass rates and university access. Schools valorise the wrong things. No wonder there is a crush for (increasingly limited) university positions. All other options are implicitly promoted as second-rate options. And nobody wants to be an also-ran.


I had the privilege last week of attending a conference for what is rapidly becoming one of my favourite subjects: Design. The College that was hosting the conference has what they call a 10% policy. They devote 10% of their teaching and learning time to community upliftment. They go into disadvantaged communities, and let the community leaders determine the outline of a project to improve the lives of people within that community. Then they students do the design work for the project as part of their assessment.


I am not for a moment suggesting that this was a perfect school, but I loved the spirit of that idea. The college obviously recognises that proper education must go far beyond imparting knowledge and developing skills. It must speak to character too. It must allow its pupils to see themselves as part of a broader picture. One does not go to school merely to find a way to make a living; one needs to learn to be a functional and responsible part of a complex system. And so schooling must foster an awareness of corporate and social responsibility. Because the dominant culture and – I would argue – human nature, teach otherwise, this is something that needs to be taught. Yet too often, if it happens at all, it happens incidentally, rather than as a result of a deliberate effort. Would this be a factor to consider in determining whether or not a particular school was a “good school”? If so, how would one measure it? I suppose the more important question might be: who should be doing the measuring?


Everybody has an opinion on what a “good school” should look like. I understand that. What I have difficulty with is that schools pander to these expectations. In which other profession do you find the everyday practice of those with the qualifications and experience being dictated by those without them? Can you imagine a world where lawyers or doctors were constantly told by those making use of their services how best to perform their daily functions, and where they listened? There are very few professional fields where public and political interference have the power to so completely marginalise the impact of current research and trends on daily practice, as in education. I cannot think of another professional domain where those who think they know have so much control over the actions of those who actually do.


And so we have a long way to go before we have any “good schools”, simply because education systems as they stand serve to consolidate existing problematic power structures in society. They reinforce social stratification and promote the interests of the wealthy elite. A truly “good” school could never exist, simply because it would always be in conflict with the interests of those who wield power in society, and would thus quickly be forced to conform or close down. The best we can ever hope for is that “good” teachers continue to operate within those systems, that a cameo performance in the Jim Carrey film that is education is so powerful that a handful of those who watch it are moved to greater faith in themselves, awakened to a deeper sense of vision and – as a result – inspired to some form of life-defining, revolutionary action.


One thought on “The Myth of the “Good School”

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  1. Too true, Pete. We have talked for years about the inappropriateness of industrial revolution school systems in an information system world. You’ve hit the nail on the head. The problem is that we are constrained by the law of supply and demand, and the demand is for a product, specified by “consumers”, that is becoming less and less useful to them You rightly point out that any spark of true reform will always be squashed by powerful interests. What a paradox that we fall over ourselves to get the most up to date, innovative cell phone but steadfastly resist anything that resembles real educational reform.

    By the way, nice chirp about the fatal flaw in Jim Carrey movies. Gave me a good chuckle.

    Liked by 1 person

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