IN BOTH THE US and the UK we now have an education system that is not connected to the real needs of children or their communities. The links between industry and education have never been closer and state schools are now part of a competitive market system – referred to as a ‘quasi-market’ – which puts targets, results and accountability at the centre of the learning process rather than the child and the community. The outcome is that schools are trapped into the ‘delivery’ of standardised abstract knowledge, imposed as a ‘National Curriculum’, and a mode of teaching and learning that denies the interests and talents of many children.

Place-based education, on the other hand, encapsulates many of the principles underlying 20th-century progressive education and extends them in a way that connects with the real life situation of the learner. It is student-centred, multidisciplinary (embracing the traditional curriculum subjects), experiential, participatory and democratic. The approach to learning is through the real interest of the learner in a community and is based on problem solving. At Antioch New England Graduate School, which is at the centre of the place-based movement in the United States, the influence of progressive educators from Rousseau to John Dewey is acknowledged. What binds these progressive ideas together is the spirit of place, the belief that when children and young people are educated in a way that ‘truly conjoins school and community’ they will learn how to play their part in the collective process of creating their own just and sustainable communities.

Underlying the many distinguished essays that mainly American educators have contributed to this book is the argument that economic globalisation is destructive in its impact on many local communities. Multinational corporations constantly relocate in search of ever cheaper labour and production costs, leaving behind a downward spiral of closed-down small businesses, unemployment and environmental decay. There is a growing recognition in Western societies of the potentially harmful effects of globalisation and an awareness that local communities themselves need to take responsibility for dealing with these effects. The role of education in this coping process is central, and the purpose of place-based education is to educate young people in the values, knowledge and behaviours that will enable them to become active citizens and stewards of the environment in which they live.

Of the many examples given in this book of successful local school and community efforts across America and in Australia and Israel, one of the most impressive and moving is the struggle for environmental justice in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Roxbury is a run-down area of Boston with a working class, mainly non-white population. As the site of the Massachusetts Bay Transport Authority and home to eight of the nine transfer trash stations for Boston, as well as acting as a hub for several major thoroughfares, it suffered from intense air pollution and rates of asthma running at eight times the state hospitalisation rate. Greater Egleston Community High School, a Boston small pilot school, transformed its curriculum into a practical programme of problem-solving, the use of information technology, public speaking and community activism, as well as relevant scientific, geographical and sociological concepts. Students who had been written off as dropouts and gang members in previous school settings worked with members of the local community in joint campaigns, and after ten years of struggle they succeeded in improving the air quality of their environment. They had become stewards of their local community.

In the final chapter, which looks at education in the global age, editors David Gruenewald and Gregory Smith say that their book is addressed to ‘people on the margins’. By this they mean those inhabitants of rural communities and inner-city neighbourhoods who have been largely abandoned by the State and its partners, the transnational corporations, and whose lives are blighted by the social, economic and environmental consequences of free-market capitalism. But as the global economic crisis continues to bite and it becomes clear that the Western way of life and the educational systems that support it are unsustainable, then it could be that the aspirations, methods and achievements of a place-based education have a relevance beyond the margins. •

Mary Tasker is Chair of Human Scale Education.