Soon a new school year opens. It is a paradox that the educational institutions, which are meant to be safe and good places to be for children and youth, also are places that create the most stress, discomfort and worry in the young. They often experience a feeling of being insufficient and never being able to fulfil the wishes and ambitions of teachers, parents and themselves to do well and be liked. Some students even experience direct maltreatment, including being mobbed and ridiculed by fellow students and sometimes even teachers. Sometimes, students are beaten by fellow students at school or on the school way; sometimes, teachers beat students, although that is illegal nowadays. Many students suffer from wrong teaching methods, which can be directly cruel to a child, leaving scars for the rest of the life. Special needs diagnosis and help are not provided to children that could have done better and have had happier school years.

We could go on listing serious shortcomings in our educational institutions, yes, those very places that have been made for children and youth to grow, master, learn, be happy and optimistic, and simply look forward to every school day and all the fun and interesting things that the teachers can help their students to experience there. The school must be safe and pleasant, and they must be allowed to learn according to their ability, interests and time—as the purpose of schooling is.

When we fail in any of these fields, as teachers and head teachers, as council and municipality leaders, as administrators and politicians, and as anyone concerned about the environment in which children grow up and come of age, it is a crime against the child not to speak up when we see that things are wrong. The school must be a help, not a burden to a child – and it must not be so that it is better for a child to drop out of school, or never be enrolled, than to go to school. That would be a total failure of the institution and the way we all treat the next generation.

Sometimes, I wonder why schools perform so poorly for so many of the children and youth, everywhere in the world. There are often good, good buildings, good teaching materials, and many resources. Well, we always wish for higher budgets and more things of all kinds; yet, it is also a fact in the world, we have spent as much on education, and we have never had better educated people than today. At the same time, so much is wrong with the education systems, in all countries, and we wonder why. I have pointed out some issues above, and they are actually major shortcomings, affecting negatively mainstream students, including top, medium and poor students, and certainly those with special education needs—and from time to time, many students, sometimes a majority of students should be given special education support.

I wonder if we have come to rely too much on education and training of teachers, on books and facilities, rather than the common sense that all adults need when we deal with human beings. Education is not a technology and schools are not factories. Schools should be fun places where teachers, parents and others, and also the students are all encouraged to work together to sort out issues together.

In my home country, Norway, an ordinary school teacher today needs five years of university-level education to be qualified to teach. A generation ago, when I was young, a teacher needed a two-year training college after secondary school, and that time, five to ten percent of primary school and lower secondary school teachers were graduates from upper-secondary school, who took a year or two off to teach before attending teacher training or other studies. I taught lower secondary school students without formal teacher training (and later I studied pedagogy, psychology and sociology for years and years). Mostly, untrained teachers’ students did at exams as the other students. Well, I believe a teacher should have teacher training, but let us not over-do it. It is also important that a teacher is just a kind and helpful adult, leading a child and youth on the right track, encouraging and advising eager young minds. A school teacher is not meant to be a specialist in subject matters; maybe some need to be, but not the overall class teacher that all children need and get to love, and will cherish and remember the rest of their lives.

In recent decades, we have not only advocated longer teacher training, but also more and more comprehensive curricula in competitive settings. Yet, we say we know that much of what children learn will be outdated facts and knowledge in their life. We talk about how students should learn to learn, that they should be able to find out about issues themselves, be able to work together, and so on. In practice, though, it too often boils down to each student being tested for what he or she has learnt. Sadly, when we do this, we do not have the child’s best needs at heart.

When schools are universal and compulsory, they must not be at the terms only of the authorities, politicians and teachers; they must be at the terms of the children. We must find better ways of defining what education really is, how much we need it, and how schools can be the service institutions for learning and personal growth that they should be. We must stop using schools as places where knowledge is forced into the heads of children, yes, in a process that many times is more like torture for a child (to pass tests and exams) than a positive experience and environment where everyone feels well-being, which would actually facilitate more and better learning.

In recent weeks, the education authorities in Norway have begun a debate about a new interdisciplinary subject or component to be part of other subjects; they call it ‘livsmestring’, notably the learning of skills to master life’s challenges, to learn to cope in life on both sunny and rainy days, to sort out practical everyday issues, for example, related to housing, tax, and so on; furthermore, the children and youth shall learn more about how to take part in society’s democratic institutions and make decisions about things, and indeed how to analyse health issues concerning oneself and the family. And then we may say: But isn’t that really the broad purpose of any education? True, and then this shows how far off the main track we have drifted. Education is not about learning by heart and getting good grades. The famous 1996 Delors Commission on Education of the European Union summarised the purpose of education for all in four simple pillars: “learning to know, to do, to be, and to live together”. As the new school year begins, let us all reflect on how to recreate real education in that spirit, the way it is meant to be, not for exams, grades, competition and misery for children and youth—but for joy of living and learning, for everyone’s well-being during the important school years and all years thereafter.

Wishing you all a Happy New School Year.

Atle Hetland

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from university, diplomacy and development aid.