An ‘F’ Grade for Education

Dr Stephen Covey wrote in his book “The 8th Habit” that “We live in a Knowledge Worker Age but operate our organisations in a controlling Industrial Age model that absolutely suppresses the release of human potential [bold type mine]” (Page 15). Just substitute the word “schools” for “organisations” and you have it.

Our schools were originally designed to put students in rows in order to learn to read and write so that they could move off the farms and into the factories for the Industrial era. Not much has changed really.

Sad, but true.

We wonder why our adolescents are dis-engaged with school, why the truancy rate is high and why adolescent depression is at an all-time high.

In fact, the issue is so problematic that our enlightened bureaucrats and politicians have seen the need to legislate for children to stay longer at school. Really?  Ever thought about changing the system so that teens might actually enjoy the experience?

How? View the work of Salman Khan where he uses video to reinvent education — see

Or perhaps you’d like to review the work of one of Australia’s leading educators, Dr Tim Hawkes, the former Headmaster of The King’s School in Sydney — see his full article outlined below from the Sydney Morning Herald and  titled,  “The Failure of Schools to Educate” ….


Dr. Tim Hawkes Headmaster The King’s School

Despite being a headmaster for nearly 20 years, I am just developing a conviction that I have been manifestly unfaithful as an educator because I have been teaching an inadequate curriculum. The fact that this inadequacy in curriculum delivery is probably to be found in most western schools, brings me no comfort at all.

When the philosopher, Aristippus of Cyrene, was asked, some 400 years BC, what students should be taught, he replied:

Those things which they will use when adults1

What then, are the things our students will use as adults? The only real certainties are well known…death and taxes! Do we teach death in our schools? Do we teach financial literacy?

Both of my parents died a few years ago. Quite apart from having to cope with the grief, I found I had to cope with the ignorance. What sort of funeral service? What is probate? Who do I have to notify? What are the duties of an executor? My experience is hardly unique. We all have to deal with death, even if it is just our own dying.

Then there are taxes…a topic I have expanded to include financial literacy. I look at the young today and see far too many victims in the use of credit cards, in understanding the relative benefits of different lending schemes, in deciding which ‘phone plan to use, and in being able to save.

Too many schools have lost sight of those things which will be used by our students when they become adult. The relevance of contemporary school education is compromised by many things, not least by examination systems designed not so much to prepare students for life, but to assist with selection into the tertiary education system or to get jobs.

What are the things that a student will use when they are grown up? Responses will vary to this question, but it is unlikely that a serious response is going to omit things like:

  • The ability to live in community and to forge good relationships.
  • The ability to communicate well.
  • The ability to know yourself and what you believe.
  • The ability to handle intimacy and sex.
  • The ability to control emotions and impulses.
  • The ability to manage financial matters.
  • The ability to do practical things, to clean, cook, make and mend.
  • The ability to be good mannered and to know etiquette.
  • The ability to accept responsibility.
  • The ability to be resilient and to deal with grief and loss.1 Diogenes Laertius “Aristippus”.

Doubtless, more topics should be added to this list, but even a list of this length begins to illustrate a chasm between what a student will use when an adult, and what a student is usually taught in school. There are glorious exceptions of course, and most schools would be doing some things in some areas above, but I believe western education to be generally failing its students in relation to the relevance of its offereing.

It is easy to sensationalise this point and to go rather too far with this thesis and advocate that students should become like Byron’s “Don Juan”.

He learned the arts of riding, fencing, gunnery. And how to scale a fortress – or a nunnery.2

Schools should do more than train for a vocation of scaling nunnery walls. Schools must train the heart and mind and do so through the vehicle of a variety of academic disciplines. However, schools ensure they remain relevant to their student’s future life, and as things stand at the moment, there is rather too much evidence that schools are failing in this regard.

I suggest that consideration needs to be given to teaching the following skills in school:

  1. The ability to live in communityRather too often the contemporary child is the isolated doughy blob entertained by a range of expensive electronic equipment which limits their interaction to “e- relationships” and these relationships are often transient, disposable and lacking in authenticity. The exercise of social skills can also be under-exercised in some families. This can lead to a child becoming self-centred and unable to take within the orbit of their thinking, the needs of others. In short, they become a social liability in a group larger than one!

    What some children need is a compulsory experience of living in community, not just for six hours a day within the choreographed setting of a school, but for 24 hours a day within the chaos of a bickering and restless community. They need to learn to live with people who are different so that they can operate in a world where annoying people stubbornly remain and there is no “delete” button to remove them.

  2. The ability to communicate wellA renewed urgency in helping students, particularly boys, to communicate better is important. The Neanderthal grunt might work well on the football ground but not necessarily in the workplace or the home. In addition to articulacy, there is the need to be able to communicate well in writing. In fairness to schools, this challenge is being met reasonably faithfully. However, schools must also recognise that content governs only about 7% of the impact of speech. The remaining 93% of the impact of a speech is controlled by the appearance of the speaker (57%) and the sound of the speaker (36%). 3 The science of voice projection, articulation, accent, modulation, pitch and pace needs to be taught, together with the most appropriate posture, grooming and appearance for someone giving a speech.

All students need to be taught to read body language, to sense mood, to interpret the unspoken feelings of another. They need to improve their ability to send and receive unspoken messages, other than the raised middle finger.

  1. The ability to know yourself and what you believeAn essential requirement for any student is that they eventually take “ownership” of what they believe in. They may mimic a political opinion from friends, a faith from parents and a cause from a teacher, but somewhere along the line, the student needs to stop the mimicking and find their own voice.

    The religious reformer, Martin Luther (1483-1595), once stood before his critics and said:

    Here I stand, I can do no other.

    Rather too many young do not where they stand or what they believe. An alarming number appear happy to progress through life:

    • Without a cause.
    • Without a creed.
    • Without a conviction.

    Even worse, some of our students do not even know themselves. They have no understanding of their unique gifts or abilities.

  2. The ability to handle intimacyThe western world generally does a poor job in preparing its students to be intimate. There are always exceptions, but in general, a student is required to navigate their way through the sexual swamp with minimal direction. Such signposts that are afforded him can be vague and contradictory. The parents say this, and the school says that, but the porn site says something completely different. Where adult direction falters, peer direction takes over. The “leader of the sack” can, in strident and boastful voice, suggest the way forward to the forbidden fruit and encourage all to eat thereof.

    The proper people to educate students about sex are parents. Some parents (who are the proper source of most of this training) are wonderful at giving their children guidelines on sex, whereas other parents are delinquent at giving their children guidelines on sex. The latter can be because of the sin of omission. The lexicon of excuses is extensive. “It’s not my job…the school will deal with it”, “I’m too busy”, “It’s the sort of thing you have to learn yourself”, “they probably know more about it than I do”, “I’m not quite sure what to tell them”…there are plenty of excuses to choose from. For other parents, it is the sin of commission. They teach their children an attitude towards sex which is unworthy of them. They model abusive and angry relationships, unfaithful relationships, degrading relationships, the child watches it all, memorises it all and repeats it all.

    Schools can also fail their students. Classes will do pencilled drawings of reproductive organs, and become experts on how “tadpoles” swim up-stream and how babies grow in the womb. They will be introduced to the horrors of sexually transmitted diseases in

C:\Documents and Settings\MEK\Desktop\InternetUpdates\The failure of schools smh.docx

Dr Tim Hawkes, Headmaster, The King’s School.


that theoretical, antiseptic kind of way. Some of the luckier ones may get to role a condom onto a banana and giggle their way through a lecture on dating. The mind is fed but not the heart. The questions a student wants to ask, they are not allowed to ask, for it is not in the syllabus. So answers must be looked for on the net, in magazines and on the back of toilet doors…for they are certainly not found in text books.

We must do a better job at teaching our children about sex and intimacy. They have little need to hear more about the biology of sex, for this is generally done well in schools. Neither do they need to hear about the morality of sex from adults with dehydrated loins who have absolutely no connection with the virility of a teenager. They want to know what they can, where they can, why they can, when they can, how they can, if they can. They no longer need to know how they measure up inside an environment of unconditional love, they need to know how they measure up outside, in the swamp of life where love, like and lust churn dangerously.

It is not just smut and titillation that a student wants, for they can get these sorts of thing quite easily these days. What they want is something more elusive, something which is rare, and that is wholesome advice on how to be a man, how to be a woman.

  1. The ability to control emotion and impulsesPrisons are typically full of men, and in particular, men who would not be in there if they had mastered the art of counting to ten before acting. Acting impulsively usually means that only the reptilian part of the brain is being exercised. Other parts of the brain need to be activated if a student, particularly boys, wish to avoid making poor decisions and enlarging our prison populations.

    The “fight or flight” behaviours exercised by boys are genetically useful when hunting mammoths or defending a cave from intruders. It is slightly less useful in contemporary suburbia or in seeking acceptance as a mature and measured member of modern society.

  2. The ability to manage financial mattersThe level of ignorance in students about financial matters can be frightening. This is revealed in the number of young adults and students who get into financial trouble through an inability to budget, a failure to understand the traps associated with credit cards and incapacity to retire debt.

    Persistently living beyond their means, over relying on parental assistance, making unwise choices when selecting hire-purchase options, telephone plans and leasing arrangements, are just some of the problems resulting from students not being taught about financial matters. In a society increasingly riven with debt, the science of wealth generation and wealth management also needs to be taught. The rudiments of saving, and the traps to avoid when borrowing or when getting involved in “get-rich-quick” schemes, need to be shared with our students if we are ever going to expect them to manage their financial affairs appropriately.

C:\Documents and Settings\MEK\Desktop\InternetUpdates\The failure of schools smh.docx

Dr Tim Hawkes, Headmaster, The King’s School.


7. The ability to do practical things

More than one discussion over the absence of life-skills in the young has been laced with horrified tales of fungal growth in their bathrooms, kitchen benches piled high with unwashed dishes, ovens blackened by neglect, and bedroom carpets disappearing under a rising tide of discarded clothes. To this domestic dyslexia must be added the fact that some students have never been taught to cook. If they have, they have probably not been taught to clean up properly afterwards

There are a range of home maintenance skills that are frequently missing in our students. How to maintain the lawn mower, change a washer on a tap, put in a new flyscreen on a door, turn off the water if there is a leak, recycle waste, conserve water, and reduce the power bill.

  1. The ability to be good mannered and to know etiquetteIt is probably all right for a child to eat like a pig, but they must know they are eating like a pig and be able to cease eating like a pig when the situation demands it. There is a whole raft of other social behaviours, which if not learnt, can result in our students being disadvantaged. The simple act of sending a “thank you” message for a present, shaking hands in an appropriate manner, knowing what bit of cutlery to use, addressing a letter correctly, understanding what “formal” means, and knowing the art of good conversation, are just some of the skills at risk of extinction in the lives of rather too many of our young.
  2. The ability to accept responsibilityMany students live lives that are voyeuristic. Quite simply, they like to watch. Watching is safe. You bear no responsibility, you accept no accountability. “Spectatoritis’ is rife. Many of today’s teenagers are screenagers. They look, comment and criticise from the comfort of the couch. The child then becomes an adult who finds it difficult to do much other than to watch and excuse themselves from accepting any responsibility. Students need to be taught how to take ownership of their own behaviours, how to be leaders, how to make appropriate decisions, and how to serve others responsibly and well.
  3. The ability to be resilient and to deal with grief and lossLife cannot be expected to provide a constant stream of undiluted fun, praise and success. If a student is going to crumple because they do not get their hourly fix of praise, they may not last long. Self-esteem needs to be built up but never to a stage that ordinary performance is exalted as extraordinary. “Warm fuzzies” are good but so too are words of correction if they are shared with wisdom and understanding.

    Students should not depend on a constant diet of praise. Disappointment happens, discouragement happens, distress happens and thus some inner courage is required. It might be as well to remind some that if the world didn’t “suck”, they would fall off and that some resilience is needed against “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”


The gods play with all and cause us to laugh and cry. Some emotional and physical courage is required. As it is said, we are all born naked, wet and hungry and things then get worse. Fortunately things also get better, because life, for most people, is a constant journey through high points and low points.


Describing the list of educational inadequacy is problematic for there are inevitably things that have been omitted and that probably need to be added to the list. For example, instruction in morality might need to be added to the list for within the dark corners of a school, a moral blindness can hinder the recognition of that which is right. Within this shadowy world, ethics writhe into convenient distortions of the truth. Values melt and slump to a level that accommodates desire.

Another practical topic which probably should be added to the list is that of being able to drive and maintain a car. Given the carnage on our roads and the irresponsibly high incidents of young with a tag on their toe, it is a wonder schools allow any student out without teaching them not only how to drive, but how to drive safely. A student should also be taught how to look after a car, how to change a wheel, and how to give the car a basic service.

Thomas More in his book Care of the Soul suggests that a great malady in the 21st. Century is our neglect of the soul. This is revealed in shallowness, loss of meaning and a failure to recognise the sacredness of ordinary things. It is significant that many of the Amazon tribes are not so much afraid of the white man’s world, but rather they are horrified by its toxicity to their soul. Perhaps western schools should also be horrified and seek to counter the soullessness within. A student’s soul needs to be kept healthy by a diet of noble action, moving and aesthetic experiences, love, wisdom and the opportunity to engage in reflection.


There are many topics that can be included in a course of instruction for students that will help them in their journey to adulthood. However, preliminary planning at The King’s School has been significantly frustrated by the strictures of the New South Wales Government as to what should be taught in schools. There are not only mandated subjects, there are specified topics within that subject, there are rules about assessment and even stipulations as to how many hours should be taught on some topics.

Governments love to play with the education syllabus in schools. This requires schools to endure a cyclical disruption of change as governments come and go. Sometimes it can also require schools to advance the political agendas of government.

With crowded timetables being inflated in content by reformists from every sphere of life, the suggestion that a school should include a course which helps students in their quest for adulthood can be expected to be received in schools with nothing other than weary exasperation. However, we are beginning to have some success in designing a program at The King’s School which begins to address some of the topics described. Although the obstacles of a heavily prescriptive and over-crowded syllabus are real, it is hoped that a curriculum might still be introduced into our Year 10 program that covers much of the material above. The introduction of such a program becomes feasible through an ability to make space in the school day through:

• Compression
• Combination
• Coordination

Compression is an enrichment of the curriculum which allows for a course to be taught in a shorter time than had originally been designated. Thus, a year-long course might be taught in nine months. This wins three months that might be used for other purposes.

Combination is when a topic is prescribed in one subject area, but is also found in another subject area. This allows topics to be combined and taught in a manner which satisfies both subjects. The result is that time is won to teach other things. An example of combination is the theme of the First World War being prominent in a history syllabus, and the war poems of Wilfred Owen being in the English syllabus.

Coordination is putting in place the necessary logistics to support a new program in Year 10. We think it is possible to win two periods in a six period day to teach this program. The four 50 minute periods before lunch will be devoted to teaching the prescribed Board of Studies syllabus. The two 50 minute periods after lunch will be available to teach a program which would feature:

  • Activity-based courses such as servicing a car, cooking a meal and first aid.
  • Excursions such as visiting a funeral parlor, courthouse and bank.
  • Parental involvement with joint parent-son homework tasks, seminars and retreats.
  • Guest speakers.
  • Reflective tasks with solitude and thinking time built into the program.
  • Compulsory social service and a period of community living.CONCLUSION

    The role of schools is infinitely more exciting than to prepare a student for their final leaving exam. The role of schools is to prepare students, not just for college or a career, but for life. In this, many contemporary schools are at risk of abrogating their responsibility. This is due, in part, to the hegemony of that final exam and the role exam results play in measuring the worth of a school. All too often those things that are more difficult to quantify and measure, like character and values, can become neglected in schools.

    It should be within the scope of a school to design a program, in partnership with the home, that instructs a child in learning those things they will need as an adult.


2 Byron “Don Juan” Canto i, st.38
3 Taylor, D (2002). The Naked Leader. Capstone Publishing, Oxford. P.208.