Instead of pumping time and money into exams, we should focus on wellbeing and encouraging children to connect with the natural world
Government plans to introduce national tests for seven-year-olds shows just how far our exam obsession has come. Our kids now face constant assessment as politicians attempt to measure the success of schools. Children have become tiny cogs in a box-ticking government machine. Education has lost its way.
This matters to me a great deal, especially since becoming a father to Ludo, five, and Iona, four. I don’t want my children to feel the same sense of failure I did growing up because they’re not good at passing tests. Let’s be honest, some people are better suited to exams than others in the same way that some of us are more sporty or arty.
There are a few of us whose minds turn to putty under pressure. Exams left me feeling worthless and lacking in confidence. The worse I did in each test, the more pressure I felt to deliver results that never came. When I failed half my A-levels, and was rejected by my university choices, I spiralled into a depression.
The wilderness rescued me. I have been shaped by my experiences in the great outdoors. Feeling comfortable in the wild gave me the confidence to be who I am, not who others want me to be. There is a natural simplicity to nature; it is far more tactile and tangible than the classroom. It’s a leveller; it strengthened my character and set me back on track.
It’s time to turn everything on its head and classrooms inside out
That’s why, instead of pumping time and money into exams, we should focus on wellbeing and encouraging our children to connect with the natural world. I’m not suggesting the abolition of the exam system, but we could certainly cut back to allow more time for children to explore the world around them.
It doesn’t need a huge investment either. Even if you don’t have immediate access, wilderness camps and schools are waiting to receive inner-city children. Part of the beauty of wilderness schooling is that the overheads are very low. You want a classroom? Build a shelter from nature’s store. You want to eat? Forage for it.
And evidence shows connecting with nature really works. Free play in the outdoors is good for social and emotional development, improves self-awareness, and makes children more co-operative. A study by the American Medical Association in 2005 concluded that: “Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier when they have regular opportunities for free and unstructured play in the out-of-doors.” There is also scientific evidence that the wilderness can reduce hyperactivity and has a soothing effect on children, especially those suffering from attention deficit disorder.
We’ve got it all wrong. We need to bring positivity, health and wellbeing back into our schools. It’s time to turn everything on its head and classrooms inside out.
There are many examples to learn from. German visionary Kurt Hahn was one of the early pioneers of outdoor education. He founded Schule Schloss Salem in Germany and the United World Colleges movement that includes Atlantic college in Wales and Gordonston in Scotland. His educational vision encompassed craftsmanship, community service, outdoor pursuits and physical skills.
The Scandinavians have also led the way in this field for many years, not only ensuring class time in the wilderness, but also replacing teaching by subjects with topics. Wilderness schooling involves a similar approach of non-conformist team work, with kids expected to work together in nature. No longer do they sit in rows while their teachers lecture, lessons are now collaborative. The system is geared towards improving communication, confidence, character and resilience rather than pushing kids through what have essentially become exam factories.
Our once progressive and world-class education system now seems to have ground to a halt. Why are we still using teaching systems that rely on cramming information to be regurgitated in exams?
I want an education system that works inside out. The outdoors becomes a weekly topic – encompassing geography, environment, resourcefulness, home economics, science, and maths – undertaken outside. Classes could be in an inner-city park, scrubland or garden.
As my own children step on to the conveyor belt, I am determined to give them a rounded education. I am in a fortunate position to share some of the wonders of the wilderness with my own kids. But we all have a responsibility to ensure every child has access to the same life-enhancing opportunities. The government should think long and hard before launching another budget-sapping exam and think about investing in the health and wellbeing of future generations.