Should it be game over for today’s education system?

‍It’s outdated. Its purpose has always been to create well-behaved workers for an Industrial Revolution which happened 200 years ago. It’s failing to teach basic skills to every child. It’s trapping students in debt. And it isn’t giving us the skills needed to solve today’s problems. We deserve something better. I don’t know what school is like today. It’s been a while since I was there. My own schooling is kind of a blur now. But I do remember colours. Mostly shades of grey, some sepia tones, but also that harsh orange light you get in cities at night time. The light you saw in that dodgy underpass 12 seconds before you were robbed.

I see secondary school kids all the time (that’s high school in America). They pretty much look the same, bigger with more hair. Smartphones have replaced Nokia 3310’s, that kind of thing. I’ve seen the pattern before however. I’ve been through it. And it worries me because I know where it leads. I did a lot of education. In fact, I did so much that I can’t stop doing it. After 22 years of formal education, I think I’m qualified to talk about it. It doesn’t work. Not well enough, anyway. The Western education system is setting us up to fail.

I typed this exact sentence into Google: ‘Why was modern schooling invented?’

‍This answer popped up immediately:

‍‍The modern education system was designed to teach future factory workers to be “punctual, docile, and sober.”

‍Punctual, I’m alright with that. Docile I’m offended by, and sober… So what if I want to turn up to work drunk. I’m kidding. I never do that, at least not this decade. But these ideas should shock you. I can’t say if this would still be offensive 200 years ago when modern education was designed. Most people had limited literacy and numeracy. Agricultural work was the most common employment route. The Industrial Revolution needed workers with those rudimentary skills.

In defence of Western education at the time, I can see how priming folk for alternative jobs with a basic education may have seemed like a good idea. Groundbreaking even. And whatever the experience of factory work in the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution (and slavery) enabled the economic growth that built Britain as we know it.

Fortunately, that’s not the world we live in today. So why are we still putting ourselves, and our children, through the same system?

Consider this framework:

  • School lasts 14 years‍
  • Students are divided by age, not by what they need or want to learn, nor by what they’ve already learned‍
  • To succeed, children need to pass exams‍
  • There is little or no opportunity to explore a subject in-depth, to develop a passion, to hone a skill. There’s an hour for one subject, then an hour for another‍
  • Teachers are considered qualified if they have the required education. Whether they love or hate children is irrelevant. While many of us have had great teachers, lots of us have also had a teacher who evidently hated young people and children.‍

Why become a teacher when you secretly want to slam dunk a 10-year-olds head down a toilet? The logic always baffled me.

Consider these results:

In the last 5 years, 46% of British children got grade 5 (a good pass) or above in English & Maths GCSE. This is the most basic qualification we believe kids need to progress in life. And less than half achieve it.

In 2018, 98,799 children in England (18% of school leavers) left education at 18 without the minimum expected qualifications (5 GCSEs passed or an alternative). These kids have had 14 years of education, costing over £100k. And it hasn’t achieved the basics.

Also in 2018, only 75% of year 6 students (10 and 11 year-olds) in England reached the expected standard in their SATs reading test. 25% did not reach it.

It can’t be a coincidence that half the UK prison population is functionally illiterate, meaning they can’t read to the standard of an 11-year-old. Up to 20% of prisoners are completely unable to read.

It’s even worse in the US, where up to 75% of prisoners are illiterate. Nobody can navigate today’s world without being able to read.

And it’s all linked back to school. The school to prison pipeline is very real. Over 6 in 10 prisoners have been excluded from school. Don’t even get me started on the stats for Black children.

So school wasn’t designed for today’s world. The reality is it doesn’t even do what it aims to do.

My views on formal education are mixed.

I did loads of it and it changed my life. Formal education can teach you a lot of stuff, no doubt. Through it, you can navigate into a well-paid job.

Have you seen what middle-class parents will do to get their kids into a good school? They’ll near-bankrupt themselves to buy a house in the right area. They’ll pretend to believe in God and go to church every Sunday. They know the difference between a good and bad school is often the difference between the boss and the worker drones he pays less than minimum wage.

Young people, please take advantage of the unlikely phenomenon of free schooling in the West. It can give you the tools to land that office job, if you want it. I’ve not decided if I’m being sarcastic here, although your job is unlikely to buy you a house

As I said, you can’t navigate the world without being able to read. Tomorrow, you might need to be able to code as well. A good school education can at least give you a shot at a good life.

Nonetheless, I also feel fooled by formal education. Even when you’ve apparently ‘won’, it can still feel like you’ve lost. ‍

This’ll piss you off.

You go to school. Then, if you’re part of the top 50% academically, you go to university. You get a lot of debt. And then you have to work to pay off that debt. Average student debt is £45k. Many poorer kids have larger loans. And from next year, they’ll be paying them off for 40 years.

This is a trap.

Most of these kids aren’t going to make it. Is it sinister? Maybe, maybe not. Like most things that seem sinister, it’s more likely just a fuck up. But either way, student debt means many graduates are worse off than if they never went to university.

But it isn’t just the debt. School isn’t giving us what we need to win, either. What we need is creativity, entrepreneurship and courage in bucket loads. What we’re taught is to be “punctual, docile and sober”.

You learn how to remember, but not how to think. You learn how to work, but not how to build. You learn how to talk, but forget how to argue. And you’re embarrassed by the debt you still haven’t paid off.

Is this really the best way for young people to fulfil their potential?

Our education system isn’t providing the skills to navigate the challenges we’re facing as a species right now. Let alone those of the future. After all, that office job is likely part of a wider system responsible for climate change, inequality and more.

There’s a growing list of problems in the world that need solutions. Children and young people will only be up to the task if they can fulfil their potential. Is modern schooling up to it? I’m not convinced. To avoid catastrophe, we need a better way. We need builders, inventors and entrepreneurs.

You’re put on an education treadmill at 4 years old and you might not look around until you get to the end. In my case, 22 years later. It’s a bummer only to realise at the finish line that maybe there was another way.

I’ve seen one alternative that might offer potential. I’ll be exploring that in another post.‍

To be continued…

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Oz Nwachukwu is a British Architect living in London and the founder of plasticfreebydesign.com. Feel free to get in contact for a chat @ hello@plasticfreebydesign.com.‍‍‍



British Architect with a deep focus on sustainability, systems, data, design and emerging technology. I also dabble in spirituality and the esoteric.

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Oz Nwachukwu

British Architect with a deep focus on sustainability, systems, data, design and emerging technology. I also dabble in spirituality and the esoteric.