The Purpose of Education

44 years ago this week, in 1978, I became a pupil at my local high school, the first year in this new system that was called “comprehensive education”. As kids go back to school all over the world, I see lots of posts on Facebook where people say they haven’t used anything they learnt at high school in their life afterwards. It led me to write this letter to you to say that I have used every ounce of education my high school gave me, and I am so grateful for it.

First, I used the academic work. I became a music and a mathematics teacher. The desire to see kids achieve all they could meant that I was challenged to push myself far beyond anything I thought I could achieve. My family had no experience with someone going on to higher education, but the teachers at Hartford High prepared me to be successful in that environment. Music instrument lessons were free – and without that I would never have been a musician, with a degree in music. I appreciate the breadth and depth of our education, and the opportunities that were given to us that we would not have had without Hartford High.

Next, the teachers were such wonderful role models. Not only did they teach us rigour, with my maths teacher being a stickler for every detail, but they taught us to laugh and enjoy life. I still tell jokes teachers told at school. The science teacher asking everyone to put their hands up, then turning on the lights and saying “many hands make light work”, the French teacher taking us to some French language movies at a university, and telling us to try our hardest to understand it – then finding out it was Monsieur Hulot – silent movies, the influence for Mr Bean! Not only was it lots of fun, but what an easy way to get us to a university for the first time.

I was also taught to look ahead, to be open to everything that was going to come in my lifetime. The maths teacher ran a computer club where we learnt to code in basic, at a time when there were no computers being used anywhere else in the school, and took us to a local city to see computers being used in business – these massive wardrobe sized machines, doing who knows what.

However, right now, the biggest influence is the sense of justice, rights and equality that was seeped into the curriculum. Most obvious was in the use of integrated humanities, where we would look at ideas from multiple angles. One of the school events that has had a major impact on me was our trip to Quarry Bank Mill. We saw the conditions working class people lived and worked in – people like us, if we had lived then. Most striking for me was when we were told about the windows in the mill itself, and that with the passing of each successive factory act, more window panes were able to open, making the working conditions inside just that little bit more tolerable. Such a small thing with such massive impact. It taught me that change is possible, and that we should never accept the status quo.

Currently, I’m completing my PhD. My research area is the situation of younger disabled adults who live in long-term care facilities because there’s nowhere else for them to live. I’m looking at the values of how we treat disabled people, and where they came from, and that led me to the Poor Laws, and right back to the Industrial Revolution – and of course, Quarry Bank Mill.

Never think that the content of a lesson, be it French verbs, Pythagoras, the novel the class is reading, sketching in 3D, or whatever else it is, is all that is being taught and learnt. The act of being together, listening to each other and sharing our thoughts and values in the context of the curriculum is immensely powerful. So, what did I learn at high school? I learnt how to live in our society – to care, to question, and to learn from each other – and there’s no more powerful lesson to learn.



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Michelle in wheelchair with lightsaber fighting Dart Vader