It’s rare to find a book about education that is completely unique, but Sue Cowley’s Road School is. Part travel guide, part memoir, part schooling discourse, it is a tale of one family’s journey through Europe and China in search of an alternative educational experience for their children.
Funny and self-deprecating, the book is a heart-warming glimpse into life on the road with this lovable family. Dad, Frank, quickly became a favourite character. His grumpy nature made for an entertaining read, particularly when you realised the only things that put a smile back on his face were spreadsheets, beer and the nights he didn’t have to share a bedroom with his kids! Plus, anyone who’s ever taken children on an educational trip will find Alfie and Edith’s joy at the seagull eating the pigeon, while they were supposed to be appreciating St Mark’s Basilica, both hilarious and instantly recognisable!
As well as being entertaining, Cowley raises some important questions about the forms and purposes of education. Reading about her children visiting Anne Frank’s house, seeing The Last Supper in person and being exposed to new places, cultures and ideas, it’s not hard to see Cowley’s point that education is much broader than the classroom. The book is also very practical. Each section ends with a summary of what the family learned in that particular country and some ideas about how to maximise the educational opportunities that come with travel.My favourite tip came from the China section: “There is no point in visiting another country and getting cross because people don’t behave in the same way that people do back home.”
All the way through the book, I kept thinking about the lasting memories that Alfie and Edith would have from their trip. There is something about travel that has a significant impact on you. When I was growing up, Ski Sunday would come on the TV and every week, without fail, my Dad would say, “I’ve been there.” We teased him mercilessly, of course, but his trip as a teenager had made him feel connected. He was proud to belong to a world bigger than his own country and has been to many other places since then. Likewise, my own travels have broadened my thinking and forced me into more nuanced understandings of people from different cultures.
Forging a strong, personal affinity with other places seems like one of the most powerful antidotes we have against the current climate of nationalism and sweeping generalisations. We need to come face to face with the humanity of those who are different to us because we’ve been to where they are, talked to them, seen the amazing things they have offered the world. In Road School, Cowley offers people the opportunity to do this with and for their children. I hope they take her up on it.