Writer, photographer, "rapper" and general technophobe takes on the internet in what could be a very, very messy fight. But it's alright: she's harder than she looks, and she's wearing every single ring she could get her hands on.


Thursday, 15 April 2010

A second education.

I didn`t get a very good impression of the English education system when I was at school; mainly because there didn`t seem to be one.

`School` involved sitting in a dirty building as quietly as I could, unsticking the chewing gum from my trousers as quietly as I could, removing the pencil shavings from my hair as quietly as I could, doing my homework as quietly as I could and trying to learn something without getting killed for it. Chairs were broken, teachers cried, boys bled regularly and my mum made damn sure that my shoes were as cheap as possible, because at some stage they would inevitably be stolen, chucked over the fence into the nearby wood or simply made filthy by walking into the assembly hall and sitting down. Lunchtimes were spent trying not to sit on mushed up chips or discarded bits of pizza, and breaktimes were spent hiding under a pile of coats in the changing room so that nobody would cut my hair off or call me a word I didn`t fully understand but didn`t like much anyway. I`m sure that there were nicer schools out there, but we weren`t even allowed to play them in netball tournaments. And so – after what felt like a million years, but was actually seven - I left secondary school with not much gained from education other than a strong character and a suspicion of any shoes that cost more than four pounds fifty.

The Japanese school system is the diametric opposite to the British school system, and it epitomises in every way how different our cultures are. The buildings are spotless – cleaned every day by the students, indoor shoes worn at all times – and classical music chimes to mark the end and beginning of each lesson. The students are perfectly dressed, without the slightest attempt at individuality; where we rolled up our skirts or drew on our backpacks or wore high heels and fishnet tights (when I say “we” I obviously don`t mean me; that would have been a death call), these children are dressed in identical, clean uniforms with polished identical shoes and identical school bags with identical books. They bow in the corridors when a teacher walks past; they eat exactly the same food – healthy fish, rice and vegetables – at their desks, quietly, and when they enter a classroom they all – in union – thank the teachers, bow and thank the earth for giving them the ability to study. After school they attend various sports clubs with energy and enthusiasm – not because their mum can`t pick them up until 6pm on a Tuesday - and to the best of my knowledge not only is there no smoking behind the bike shed, there is no bike shed. Hair is neat, words are softly spoken, and they make lines like no other children I have ever seen: they move like shoals of fish.

It`s famous all over the world; the Japanese education system. And all over the world it is questioned by the West as suppressive and flattening; effective, obviously, but essentially “repressing” the freedom of children to just “be children”.

A week in a Japanese public school (public as in; public, rather than public as in; private), and it is quite clear that these children have a freedom that British children can`t even imagine. Not only are they all getting a first class education – for nothing, regardless of their income or background – but the lack of `individuality` that we rate so highly means that there is no fear over whether their shoes are the right ones (I once nearly got thumped for wearing Hi-Tec trainers instead of Adidas during PE); no staying up all night wondering if their pencil case is going to be laughed at. They are free to be children; to giggle and worry about their lessons and show each other their new key-rings and make eyes at the opposite sex. At breaktime, they put their little yellow hats on (the elementary school children have no uniforms; just t-shirts and trousers and yellow caps) and run outside; climb things, jump things, roll things. The playground has a rope bridge, four foot tyres, climbing frames, woods: they play games and get muddy – in a way that we can`t even imagine, in a comprehensive school system that banned swings because they were “too dangerous” - and then they all skip happily back to the sanctity of a beautiful, clean, quiet school, filled with teachers who aren`t nearing nervous breakdowns and swearing at each other over the canteen burgers.

A Japanese school feels safe. It`s safe to be a child here; it`s safe to be a teacher. I`m sure there is bullying just as there is anywhere in the world – they are still children, and prone to inherent cruelty and thoughtlessness – but I sincerely doubt that it`s in a head-down-toilet kind of way, and because of the way the day is structured there`s no way for anyone to be on their own at any stage. It feels like a school for children, instead of a building to get children ready and hardened for the horribleness of adult life; something they will be unprepared for no matter how many swear words are written on the walls of the toilets.

We rate individuality and creativity too highly in the West, I think; if I have either of them at all, it is in spite of my school education, and not because of it. My school experience taught me to fear standing out; to fear success; to fear intelligence. It taught me to be ashamed of doing anything well, or of behaving myself. It taught me to distrust equality, and harmony, and peace as symptoms of supression.

The Japanese school experience gives the children the stability they need to be themselves when they are old enough to know who that is; it gives them time to grow up, and adjust, without crushing them under a mask of enforced individuality which is just another word for letting them do what the hell they like, and letting the stronger rule the weaker, just as they would in the wild. Fear and dirt and noise and junk food do not encourage us to be special children; they just encourage us to turn into horrible adults before we`re ready to.

If Japan is a graceful, warm, harmonious, productive and welcoming culture, then it`s pretty obvious that the education here plays a big part in that. And if Britain, by and large, is not, then I think we also need to look to how we treat our children.