What’s the point in school?

Why are we here? What’s the point in school? 

Both kids and adults in schools from time to time tend to wonder… 

Teachers, school leaders and parents when in schools rarely have the headspace to think to ourselves, or to think together: what are we doing here? What is a great education? What do great schools do? 

Tricky questions.

First – why ask? 

Straight from the heart – education is the great love of my life. The schools I went to inspired in me a love of learning forever. I’ve learned from teachers and school leaders for almost four decades.

I find myself wanting to take some time now to think about those tricky questions. 

But why write and share?

I write and share this out of awe for the world’s teachers, headteachers, school leaders and support staff – the unsung heroes – the cover teachers, the supply teachers, the caterers, the cleaners, the receptionists, the office teams, the site teams – who all choose to invest their time to help our children lead great lives. Out of excitement for the future, and passion for the voiceless – for the future generations we leave a legacy for.

I also write this out of anger. As a witness: to years of school shamers berating schools for having rules; to armchair critics who have never taught or led in schools, but who still harass them; to jeerers who sneer that school is pointless; and to social media pitchfork mobs who pile on livid outrage and abuse rather than the heartfelt support our school leaders deserve. 

Who will speak up for schools?

Here goes. [ducks potshots]



What makes for a great education? 

A great education combines great teaching, curricula, culture and community to help students learn liberating knowledge and values that let them take part in the great adventures of humanity and contribute to others and the world. 

What do great schools do? 

A great school develops teachers’, leaders’, staff and students’ knowledge, character, contribution and wisdom. 


A community for knowledge, character and values

Let’s delve deeper. 

If a great education combines great teaching and great community, what do we mean by these? 

Great curriculum teaching: teachers teaching subject knowledge, focusing attention so that students don’t get distracted, recapping so students remember, explaining and demonstrating expertly so that students know how to succeed in the subject or topic, checking students’ understanding, guiding practice – and exemplifying subject passion, curiosity, enquiry, intellectual and cultural endeavour, imagination, empathy, creativity and ethical thinking – role-modelling what it means to be a part of our society and democracy, to participate in (subject and other) communities, to keep developing our habits, choices and character, and to contribute to civilisation and humankind. 

Teachers are the great guides of humanity’s future. Teachers are Gandalf. Morpheus. Aslan. Athena. Guides for our children to help them find their heroes’ journey. If freedom begins with what we teach our children, teachers are freedom fighters.

Great culture and community: students and staff together interacting hundreds of times a day: talking, sharing, chatting, socialising, learning about and understanding people, experimenting, creating together, taking turns, making friends, learning about emotions, dealing with difficulties, playing, joking, greeting each other on passing, listening to each other, showing up for each other, making (sometimes lifelong) memories together, enjoying each others’ company, welcoming visitors, visiting places, getting to know different cultures and communities. 

Schools are portals to our future. As go schools, so goes humankind. Schools (alongside families and communities!) are some of the great guardians of human civilisation for future generations.

Together, teaching and community help students and staff learn the knowledge, values and character traits that help them lead great lives. 


Why knowledge, character and values? 


Knowledge is liberating.

Knowledge brings freedom from cages that have bedevilled our human minds and societies for generations. 

Freedom from life-limiting illiteracy. Freedom from life-limiting innumeracy. Freedom from being locked out of learning, locked out of reading, locked out of grappling with intellectual argument, debate, numbers, stats, charts or graphs; freedom from being intimidated by complicated, highly-literate, highly-number-dense institutions like the media, companies and employers, medicine, healthcare and hospitals, transport, computers, smartphones and tablets, parliamentary democracy, elections and referenda, finance, banks, credit cards, the police and law courts; freedom from being intimidated by cultural and artistic arenas like art galleries, theatre, museums, orchestra; freedom from manipulation by lies, peer pressure, advertising, tv, binge-streaming, mass media, social media, misinformation, brainwashing, propaganda and exploitation. Freedom from confusion and misperceptions. Freedom from bewilderment by vast, fast change and megatrends, such as computing, the internet, social media, AI, automation, online learning, antibiotics, vaccines, sustainability, recycling, robots, debt traps, cryptocurrencies, debasements, ageing, climate change, pandemics, recessions, mass migration – and the urgency of lifelong learning to understand such megachanges. 

Knowledge brings the freedom to play a part in the world

Freedom to join discussions. access opportunities. help our loved ones. chat with people from different backgrounds. influence others. understand society, the economy, media, finance and our political systems. take part in our democracy and media. to travel in the time machine of history. in the spaceship of science. in the dreamworlds of literature, art, music and drama. in the matrix of mathematics. with the illuminating torch of geography. in the design workshops of technology, engineering and computing. Freedom to challenge and change things. Freedom to travel the world. To meet every dazzling variety of people. To live abroad. Freedom to understand nature, animals and the planet more and more fully over time. Freedom to keep learning, to build lifelong education on a sound foundation of rock-solid knowledge.

Untold story of the century: humanity goes to school and learns to read

Within 200 years, both school access and literacy worldwide increased vastly, and fast.

1800: Less than 10% of children worldwide in school, less than 10% of the world can read and write.

2020: More than 85% of children worldwide in school, more than 85% of the world can read and write.

Schools are one of the great success stories of humankind.


Values and character traits too are liberating.

Character brings freedom from disempowerment- from traps that bedevil our human hearts. 

Freedom from: lack of agency. from blame. from poor self-trust. from being controlled by disturbing emotions. from bitterness. resentment. envy. quarrelling. violent temper. from lack of self-control. from uncontrollable rage. Freedom from misguided beliefs. fear. hatred. prejudice. inflicting abuse or harassment. inflicting violence. imprisonment. Freedom from threats. addiction. exploitation. radicalisation. self-blame. from distress. 

Character brings freedom and agency to act in the world.  

Freedom to: have great relationships. connection. partnerships. lasting emotional intimacy. to be kind and be there for people. bring love, joy, fun and peace to others. to encourage and affirm others. to find courage, acceptance, forgiveness and resilience. freedom to love fully!


What makes a great school? 

The best schools develop knowledge.

The best schools develop character.

The best schools develop contribution.

The best schools develop wisdom.


The best schools develop students’ relationships to shared quests: the ways subjects see the world, ask questions and seek to understand. For instance, learning art together, students see the world through a creative, imaginative, collective lens, asking: what can I create? what are others making? what have others created and what were their artistic aims? The best schools build a thirst for knowledge that lasts a lifetime.


The best schools develop students’ relationships – their relationships to themselves and their relationships to the great virtues of humanity. 

The best schools develop, with and for their students, the virtues of courage, honesty, integrity, empathy, responsibility, generosity, constancy, resilience, and gratitude for all the joys of life.

The best teachers and schools together nurture their students’ unique personalities in all their variety: their humour, playfulness, perspective, passions, sense of adventure and self-understanding. The best schools build our character.


The best schools develop our capacity to contribute to each other and the world. They can get us to consider and take good care of the most vulnerable in our school and in society: the disadvantaged, the bullied, the bereaved, the adopted, the physically impaired, those with learning difficulties or disabilities, the very poorly, long-term ill with medical conditions or hospitalised; young carers, staff who are pregnant, those at risk of harm or prejudice, stigma or stereotype, the very elderly, those in poverty, the imprisoned. The best schools get us caring, giving, volunteering and fundraising for causes and charities close to our hearts. The best schools teach us to help others. To contribute. 


The best schools develop our wisdom – our decision-making, discernment and judgment. 

They teach us to focus on what’s in our control. To remember life is short. To think before acting. To choose well. To respond well to challenges. To always keep learning. To tame our temper. To think back and plan ahead. To be a role-model for others. To strive to bring our loved ones wise counsel. To seek wisdom.

Great schools create lasting, liberating knowledge, values, virtues, contributions and wisdom, that bring vast, unseen, unsung advantages and opportunities to their communities over several lifetimes and generations. 

Schools are the great liberators of humankind.

Just imagine if every kid in the world got to go to a great school.


At their best, schools lovingly, patiently nurture the knowledge, character and wisdom that free people throughout their lives from the shackles of disempowerment, intimidation, bewilderment, fear and prejudice – and empower us to understand, challenge, contribute and change the world for the better.  

Schools change lives. 

Our schools influence all of us over the course of our time here on earth – our children, our communities, our world and our future – and leave a lasting legacy for those who will come after us.

Schools change lives.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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