When is Care Not Education?

I don’t know why it is, but I am having increasing problems with the English language! It’s not that I didn’t do a degree in English at Oxford and can’t construct a sentence, or spell most words correctly (although I do have a real difficulty with my increasingly wayward handwriting). It’s just that there don’t seem to be the right words for some of the most basic aspects of my life alongside and in the midst of, children and young people.

You can’t get much more basic than “care” and “education” for example, but they don’t seem to mean what I want them to mean and I’m not sure that any proffered alternatives are much better.

In English and the U.K. education is taken (for granted) to be all about schools and schooling (and then for some, colleges, universities and courses). And that is increasingly about tests, achievement targets and outcomes. But that isn’t what I mean by education at all.

Let me tell you what education should be in my view. It’s about creating the context or environment in which the soul of each child is enabled to make contact with every part of the universe in one way or another, including observation, touch, intuition, measurement, poetry, drama, music, dance, metaphor, communal exploration and teamwork, debated, reading, logic, risk-taking, experience, experiments, imagination, and play. For those who know the work of one of the greatest educationalists, Friedrich Froebel, there are no surprises here: it is the heart of his educational philosophy and method.

You will realise that such an understanding of the word is so far away from how it is used in common parlance, whether lay or professional, that it might just as well be in a parallel universe. I suppose the nearest we can get in English is to talk about the process of learning, or the creation of a rich and imaginative learning environment. But meanwhile schools, testing, curriculum development, Sure Start, Every Child Matters, and the rest continue, regulated by a quite different ideology and pulse beat.

Now I concede that there will be those reading this who judge it to be a rather arcane, if not academic and largely irrelevant, distinction and point that I am making. But let me tell you one of the reasons why I disagree.
If education is about schools and formal institutions of learning, then where does that leave the rest of a child’s life? What is the comparative word we use for family and home life? The answer is “care”. Schools educate children, and families care for them. It’s a simple enough and taken for granted way of describing the respective roles and functions of these two institutions that form the most important part of a young child’s life and upbringing. If you look through the legislation and guidance you will find the distinction is one of the constants over the years. Teachers teach, and carers care.

The problem is that anyone who stops to consider this demarcation realises there is a major piece of nonsense going on. Schools are where certain aspects of learning (including reading, writing and arithmetic) are authorised: but what of the whole of the rest of life including relationships, emotional intelligence, modes of interaction with others and the environment, spirituality, exploration of the natural world, values, priorities, patterns of thought and thinking, moral boundaries, altruism, the story of a child’s family and people, rituals and life-stages?

We know enough about child development to be pretty sure that these aspects of life and learning are the keys to all learning. The way a very young child learns to interact with her mother, significant others, and the immediate world around, is of critical importance in determining the lifelong ways in which she will come to terms with, process and develop all subsequent relationships with people, information, facts, and situations. And it doesn’t take much thought to realise that the word “care” will not do to describe the way in which home and family influence, if not create, the whole learning processes for a child. A parent or “carer” is probably the most influential “teacher” that a child can have (whether good or bad). And then you find that the words “home schooling” have come to mean a formal relationship that excludes all homes, foster families and residential communities that do not have “education on the premises”!

I began by saying that I’m not sure why this whole problem is coming to the fore in my life, but as I have been writing this piece certain influences have become clearer. Let me identify a few for you. I have become a grandparent for the first time, and little Isaac has just reached the stage where he is focussing on human faces and smiling reciprocally. That movement and interplay between adult and baby could be argued to be the foundation of learning. I would call it a “dance”. Daniel Hughes points out in his remarkable book Building the Bonds of Attachment: Awakening Love in Deeply Troubled Children, Rowman and Littlefield, Oxford 1998, how such reciprocal activity is “the original dance of humanity” and its absence can prove to be the “death of the soul” (pages 20-23).

It’s clear to me that by the time Isaac goes to school he will have learned ways of interacting with the world around him, animate and inanimate, that will prepare him for creative exploration of stories, shapes, textures, sounds, numbers and the like. I would like to think that parenting and caring are acknowledged to involve such learning, but fear that this is not how they are generally seen.

I’ve also been reading some of the research about the “irreducible needs of children” and find that there is a consensus that good-enough parenting is the foundation for adequate patterns of enquiry, interaction and learning.
And a forthcoming book by my colleague and friend, Kathryn Copsey: From the Ground Up, Barnabas, Oxford, 2005, has reminded me yet again of the wonderful insights of Janusz Korczak, the Polish child welfare pioneer. For him caring and learning and inseparably interwoven, and he finds ways of describing this integration memorably.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “we don’t need no education” or that “schooling can interrupt a perfectly good education”, but there is enough of the truth in each nostrum to make me hesitate before disagreeing.

Over many columns in this journal I have been trying to describe what goes on in the residential community, Mill Grove, in which Ruth and I live. Should you have the time to look back over some of them, I hope you will see that life here is about both “caring” and “learning”, and why we chose the name “Mill Grove” rather than a functional description of what the place was trying to do.

I would welcome your responses to this line of thought. Some may rethink the slogan “It takes a village to parent” and respond “It takes a village to teach”. Others may stress how much caring there is in teaching and schools. I would be surprised if anyone is completely happy with the idea that when we use the words “care” and “education” we say what we mean, or mean what we say!

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