Isn't it time for some tough questions about the high school model? Joanna Mathers investigates.

Bells, uniforms, bullying, rankings, streams. The classification of students as brainy or losers, the competition to be the prettiest, the coolest, the best at rugby. In my humble opinion, high school sucks.

I hated high school. Everything about it stunk of conformity. The factory producing little capitalists that would slot into their predefined places in society upon graduation. Those who didn't toe the line were spat out and left to fend for themselves.

There was always an undercurrent of violence. In my short experience (about six months, tops, long story) I saw a girl laid into outside art class and kicked in the head (by other girls). One kid was so badly bullied on school camp that he ran away and went missing for a day. Another boy had chillies rubbed into his eyes. It was Lord of the Flies, the North Shore edition.

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For me there's something sinister about the model of education that we so readily embrace. About the wearing of uniforms, the mass movements of bodies at the ring of a bell. The indoctrination of thousands of young minds in the "right" and "wrong" ways of thinking and being. But somehow high school just keeps ticking along. No questions asked.

As we approach third decade of the 21st century, maybe it's time we started asking some tough questions.

The model of education that we accept as given originated in Prussia in the 18th century. Under the auspices of King Frederick II (Frederick the Great) the education system put in place compulsory schooling for girls and boys between the ages of 5 to 13. Education was free, literacy increased markedly, and the system was funded by tax. It was so successful that it formed the foundation of an education system that has achieved ongoing and worldwide acceptance.

While this model brought education to those who otherwise would never learn to read or write, there is an argument that posits the Prussian model as a form of mass social control. That these compulsory schools trained children to be submissive and subservient, forged into cogs to power the machinations of industrialisation.

Writer and futurist Alvin Toffler provided this analysis of the Prussian system in his seminal work Future Shock (1970): "Mass education was the ingenious machine constructed by industrialism to produce the kind of adults it needed. The problem was inordinately complex. How to pre-adapt children for a new world – a world of repetitive indoor toil, smoke, noise, machines, crowded living conditions, collective discipline, a world in which time was to be regulated not by the cycle of sun and moon, but by the factory whistle and the clock.

"The solution was an educational system that, in its very structure, simulated this new world."

There is certainly much merit in a free education system that teaches people the joys of reading and writing, the alchemy of mathematics. And early education doesn't seem to have the soul-destroying qualities of high school.

But once the structure and the uniforms and the assessments come into play, school seems to take a downwards turn. You can see Toffler's point.

It also seems to turn kids feral. As mentioned earlier, some of the most, um, memorable moments of high school involved bullying. I wasn't bullied horribly like some kids, but I was a social misfit. High school isn't kind to weirdos.

According to figures sourced through the Ministry of Education, nearly 20 per cent of New Zealand kids consider themselves to be regularly bullied. This is the second highest rate in the OECD.

Katrina Casey, deputy secretary of Sector Enablement and Support for the ministry, says that it's up to each school to ensure their students are safe.

"Bullying is a complex issue with multiple causes. A 'one-size-fits-all' model does not work for all schools. The best way to prevent bullying is to adopt a whole-school approach that emphasises student wellbeing and inclusiveness, and values diversity," she says.

She goes on to say that the Education Review Office plays a key role in ensuring all school boards are meeting their legal obligations, including inspecting the school's policies and procedures on the provision of a physically and emotionally safe environment for all students and staff.

But it doesn't always work. Take the case of Nicola-Jane Jenks and her 17-year-old daughter.

Jenks took matters into her own hands after two years of systematic bullying against her daughter by another female student at Mt Albert Grammar. She grabbed her daughter's bully by the hair and hit her repeatedly; this after her daughter called in a state of distress outside the school.

Jenks says her violent outburst was triggered by the sadness and frustration that she felt after seeing her daughter wilt under the weight of bullying. She was taken to court in October last year for the incident but was discharged without conviction.

The school knew about the bullying but claims that it occurred out of school. They did nothing, but reiterate their anti-bullying stance.

This is an extreme case, but one in five kids are suffering from ongoing bullying at our schools. That's a lot of traumatised kids. Sure, there are resources and support (although counsellors at high schools are stretched to breaking point) but there is something inherently wrong with an institution that breeds such vileness.

Professor Peter O'Connor head of school at the Auckland University Faculty of Education. / Photo: Chris Loufte
Professor Peter O'Connor head of school at the Auckland University Faculty of Education. / Photo: Chris Loufte

Peter O'Connor is a professor of critical studies at the education department of the University of Auckland. He sees high school as a failed experiment and has little hope for the model ever changing in this country.

"Schools were invented at the same time as factories to stamp out standardised models that would serve the industrial machine. They are designed to sort out the good product from the bad. There are public factories and private factories – they create different products, but they are still factories."

O'Connor believes that the NCEA system and its attendant hyper-assessment is harming both students and teachers.

"There is so much assessment that teachers are burning out. Great teachers who loved their job don't have any time to be creative and pass on their knowledge. It's just about ticking the box."

He points to the much-lauded Finnish education model (which has no standardised tests apart from a single end-of-year exam in the last year), no streaming and no comparisons between schools as something to aspire to. The schools are small, the students get individual help, and Finland tops the international rankings in terms of literacy, maths and other key subjects.

"When they took away testing kids became more creative and capable of critical thinking. Assessment doesn't work."

O'Connor says that our emphasis on "success" in an academic sense at high school and beyond – leading to a job, a mortgage and the continuation the current paradigm - ignores real measures of success: meaning, freedom of expression, happiness.

"NCEA results are meaningless when it comes to true success. When Hekia Parata left her role as the Minister of Education she said that her greatest achievement was achieving the best NCEA results. What sort of claim is that? We have the highest youth suicide rate in the developed world and we are worried about NCEA results?"

The high level of assessment in high schools is an issue for many students. An ERO report from 2016 reported that "many students experienced a very assessment driven curriculum, which caused them much stress and anxiety" and "only a few schools recognised this and were responding to the detrimental effect on student well-being".

Careers seem to be the ultimate outworking of the high school system. From an early age (usually starting at intermediate school) young people are constantly asked what they will do when they leave school.

Katie (not her real name) is a 16-year-old who attends a well-known Auckland high school. She says that she has been harried about her career from about the age of 12.

"It's just got more extreme as the years go on. We are constantly asked what we want to do as a career and told we have to work to get the grades so we can get there. There is an expectation that we will go straight to training from school and then move into a career."

This focus on establishing a linear career path and never faltering from it is wrongheaded according to O'Connor.

"How many people know what they want to spend the rest of their lives doing when they are 16? It's the completely the wrong focus."

There are some people for whom the traditional style of education works. If people are academic, highly motivated, or great at sport, high school can offer a lot. But many others see the entire experience as a trial to be endured until they turn 16 and legally able to leave.

Katie has worked out that the best way to get through is to keep a low profile and serve her time.

"I had a really hard time in year 10 and then went to work over summer and learned that people tend to keep their personal lives to themselves at work. So now I approach school in a more professional manner. I don't have anything to do with the groups that everyone is part of. I just go to class, sit with my boyfriend during the breaks, and wait it out.

"There's not long to go now – I'll be finished at school soon."

Frances Valintine is an education futurist and the founder and chairwoman of the Mind Lab.

She believes that there is an over-emphasis on qualifications and even spearheaded a campaign (which was taken up by 200 businesses in New Zealand, including KPMG and ASB) that removed the requirements for qualifications on their applications.

Attitude, openness and the ability to think outside the norm are what future-focused businesses look for – not good NCEA results.

She also says that high schools are also failing students when it comes to the skills they need to engage with a global, digital world. She believes that schools are equipping students for a world that is history.

"We get new students out of school who have no idea how to use programmes like Trello and Google Drive. So much of the new work environment takes place remotely and collaboratively and schools aren't teaching this."

Some high schools are looking to the future, and Valintine lauds the model that Hobsonville Point School has adopted.

The school is based around "learning hubs", which have about 15 students and a teacher who is called a "learning coach". Within these hubs, learning coaches work closely with students and their families to tailor programmes that are suited to each individual student. There is an emphasis on well-being and individual development – rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

Learning modules are specialised subjects taught by teaches in line with the New Zealand curriculum. Critical and creative thinking is prized and any issues that arise can be dealt with during the learning hub time allocated.

But this student-centred approach is world's away from the traditional, hierarchical schooling model that many of our young people are living with.

Harry Gerrard (now 20) attended a prestigious Auckland school, which he likens to a military camp. "Listen when spoken to. Speak when given permission. Food only at meal times. Bathroom rights only by permission. If you didn't obey master and his ideals, punishment would soon find you."

He describes a school culture in which a handful of students received praise and respect from the teachers - those with great grades, rich parents or sporting prowess – and who genuinely believed that they were better than everyone else.

"These people would berate and belittle anyone who dared not succumb to the almighty 'school pride'. No outliers were tolerated. No differently minded people were included. The cattle were sentenced to slaughter by the hands of those who were successfully brainwashed by the institution. The social divide was great. Groups of 'friends' were small and contact with other cliques only occurred when absolutely necessary, otherwise everyone was shunned."

This is the danger of the traditional education model. In the highly competitive, hyper-assessed version of high-school education, there are winners and losers. The losers are often those who dare to question, refuse to accept the status quo, strive to be themselves.

And it's these students – the ones who probably have the most real potential in the wider sense – who are falling through the cracks. Isn't it time for a change?

Deep Green Bush School

Deep in the forests of the Hunua Ranges young people are learning lessons from nature. No technology here, just birds and trees and possums to skin and cooking over an open fire.

Deep Green Bush School is as far away from traditional education as you can get. Headed by Joey Moncarz of Miami Beach, it's the antithesis of everything you think about school.
Moncarz began the school after growing tired of the "lies being told to the students at high schools". He worked in New Zealand schools for over five years, teaching both English and maths, but was appalled at what he saw as obfuscation of the reality of the world we live in.

"The entire system is weighed down with nonsense. The world is in a state of near ecological collapse and no one was admitting to it. And I don't think there are any changes on the horizon."

At Deep Green Bush School, there is no daily routine. There is no technology allowed, in fact in its statement on technology claims that "that their use is extremely damaging and a form of child abuse" and its use "cripple them socially, emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually".

Instead they spend their days "freely interacting, socialising with others, making music and having fun".

"When they are ready to learn maths and reading they can. But it needs to be initiated by them."

And this sense of democratic decision making that underpins the ethos of a school that is, undoubtedly, a genuine alternative to the mainstream.

Note: The school was registered as a private school in 2018 and the role is currently less than 10.