Schools are terrible. Really terrible. Really.

I have been reading a lot lately about how terrible schools are, ranging from cartoons like this to articles like this. I went into my six-year-old daughter’s classroom today because she had to go to the doctor this morning (ear infection, you know how it is) and so I actually had a chance to observe them in action.

As I walked in, a paper dart flew past my head. It sailed over a tight corner which was crowded with a man I didn’t recognise – I think he might have been the autistic boy’s teacher aide – and a boy or two, discussing maths. Swiftly chasing the dart came Josh* and Aidan, both giggling. They picked it up and wandered off again, as I entered the main part of the room. There I spotted the teacher, Ms N, sitting on a low chair at the front of the room, with Bindi, Sofia and Anja (my daughter’s friends) sitting facing her on their own chairs. Ms N was taking notes as the girls explained some incident involving unkind behaviour by someone. My daughter was happy to be in the room and wanting to engage with her teacher and friends, but Ms N said that she would need to go and read a book for a few minutes. I relayed this to my daughter, explaining that Ms N was busy at the moment but would be free in a few minutes. Miss 6 skipped off to the book display behind her desk group to find something to read.

When Ms N had a moment I told her about the trip to the doctor. She stood up and put her head close to mine. “I sometimes think it would be easier if it were all boys!” she murmured. “They don’t get into all this… stuff.” Then she sat down to resume the court session.

The rest of the children were in small groups, or ones and twos, clustered around their desks and apparently cheerfully getting on with things. Some were standing, some were sitting. Some were chatting, some were quiet. It was a peaceful scene.

I mused on the contrast between what I had just seen and the popular image of schools portrayed in many articles on the Internet – children in rows, forced to sit down and shut up, to memorise and regurgitate mindlessly. Schools like these must indeed be terrible places of frustration and tyranny, where joy in learning is stamped out and individuality stifled in the name of classroom control.

The thing is, my school isn’t like that.

Maybe there’s something different about Ms N. And there is. She is recognised by my fellow parents and by other staff at the school as being exceptional in understanding the individual kids in her class, and fostering each child’s unique gifts.

Maybe there’s something different about this school. And there is. It is an Accredited School of the New Zealand Foundation for Character Education, and it places an extremely strong emphasis on strengths-based learning. It is the largest primary school in town. Kids from all over the world come here, meaning that my children are surrounded by a greater diversity of skin colours, accents and religions than you mostly find in this neck of NZ. It has an extraordinarily wide range of extra-curricular activities available (which we mostly don’t take advantage of because I don’t believe in overloading kids’ timetables).

So did we just happen to luck into one of the best schools with the best teachers, and that’s why our kids have loved school and learned heaps and made friends and come to understand themselves, their gifts and their challenges and the things that make them unique? Or do most schools do this, and is public opinion (as mediated by the internet) just lagging behind? … Or is it perhaps lagging geographically, and New Zealand schools are better than those archaic SAT-driven education factories in the US?

As I walked across the playground to leave, my almost-nine-year-old son and his classmates raced by me, training for the upcoming cross country. “Hi mum!” he yelled as he belted past.

My school is fine. So why do people think they’re so terrible?


*Names have been changed.