Sunday, 9 May 2010

Now is the time to state the case for libertarian education

Starting tomorrow, thousands of primary schools across Britain will be taking part in a boycott of the Key Stage 2 SATS tests. Teachers in London are organising a "SATS picnic" near the London Eye, encouraging teachers to bring their classes and childrens to bring their favourite books. Elsewhere, teachers are using the opportunity to take pupils on outings or to host lessons in creative writing.

If it goes ahead, then the action will already have brought about - albeir briefly - some of the things neccesary in an overhaul of the education system. Namely, a greater emphasis on creative work and the stripping away of formal examination.

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) are leading the boycott as part of a campaign for "assesment reform." They argue that the tests are bad for children, teachers and education, cause unnecessary stress and lead to the creation of league tables which undermine the work of schools and heads. However, there is much more to it than this - especially from a libertarian point of view.*

The basic argument for reform centres on the fact that children are over-tested. The final report of the Cambridge Primary Review (PDF), published last year, found that the prevailing concept of standards in education is "restricted, restrictive and misleading." The report found that "the English insistence on the earliest possible start to formal schooling, against the grain of international evidence and practice, is educationally counterproductive," and "national tests, national teaching strategies, inspection, centrally-determined teacher training and ringfenced finance have together produced a ‘state theory of learning’."

Centrally-prescribed, "one size fits all" education, which "treat[s] literacy and numeracy as proxies for the whole of primary education," needs to end. The "considerable communal potential of schools" is not being tapped into, and "top-down control and edict [should] be replaced by professional empowerment, mutual accountability and proper respect for research and experience."

What the report doesn't mention is the role that children have to play in this model. As a reformist body, though it has plenty of good suggestions, the core presumptions of the establishment - not least that of children being removed from any kind of decision making process - remains intact.

In Summerhill, the book named after the revolutionary school he founded, A.S Neill challenged this notion;
Classroom walls and the National Curriculum narrow the teacher’s outlook, and prevent him from seeing the true essentials of education. His work deals with the part of the child that is above the neck; and perforce, the emotional, vital part of the child is foreign territory to him.

Indifferent scholars who, under discipline, scrape through college or university and become unimaginative teachers, mediocre doctors, and incompetent lawyers would possibly be good mechanics or excellent bricklayers or first rate policemen.

I would rather Summerhill produced a happy street sweeper than a neurotic prime minister.

In all countries, capitalist, socialist or communist, elaborate schools are built to educate the young. But all the wonderful labs and workshops do nothing to help Jane or Peter or Ivan surmount the emotional damage and the social evils bred by the pressure on him from his parents, his schoolteachers, and the pressure of the coercive quality of our civilisation.

The function of the child is to live his own life – not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows best. All this interference and guidance on the part of adults only produces a generation of robots.

We set out to make a school in which we should allow children freedom to be themselves. In order to do this we had to renounce all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all religious instruction. We have been called brave, but it did not require courage. All it required was what we had – a complete belief in the child as a good, not an evil, being. Since 1921 this belief in the goodness of the child has never wavered; it rather has become a final faith.
The Summerhill model, - direct democracy, accountability, and community discipline, in which the children engage as much as the teachers - works. Hence why the case for the notice of complaint issued by authoritarian then-Home Secretary David Blunkett collapsed, and the subsequent Ofsted report (PDF) noted that "pupils’ personal development, including their spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, is outstanding and behaviour is good, mainly as a result of the good quality care, support and guidance they receive."

The liberal end of the spectrum only touches upon this. The ability of teachers and schools to set their own path is examined in-depth, but never that of the children to do the same. The fact that league tables pit schools against one another is criticised endlessly, and the fact that children are forced into the same competition is barely even mentioned. Questions of education being cooperative rather than competitive, or children being given scope to make decisions doesn't even come up.

Even the most liberal of commentators, faced with the idea that a duty of care doesn't mean a right of control, and that children can engage in the democratic self-management of their own lives, will baulk.

There is too much invested in the idea that children need "discipline" and "control." They are "hoodies" and "feral youth," forming mobs and committing attrocities. Either we haven't beat the shit out of them enough, or we beat them too much rather than "moulding" them through less coercive methods. The point is the same - they're not doing what we want, therefore our preferred method of control isn't being enacted properly.

The SATS boycott is not about these issues. The framework of debate is much narrower, and the liberty of children doesn't come into it. It should. Now is the time for the advocates of libertarian education and child-rearing to come out of the woodwork and to make themselves heard.

*It should be noted that, unlike other areas, there is no crossover in perspectives between left- and right-libertarianism on education. Whilst a big part of my argument on schooling focuses on freedom and driect-democracy exercised by the children, right-libertarianism focuses exclusively on freedom for school boards, private businesses, and the quasi-mystical entity that is "the market." As ever in right-libertarian thought, freedom for those who do not own capital or property (in this case, children) is non-existent. Have a look at both the LPUK and US Libertarian Party policies on this to see what I mean.