The right to say no to school

The right to say no to school (Times Educational Supplement Scotland, 21 September 2001)

Despite the establishment’s efforts word has got out that young people who want an alternative cannot be forced to attend, says Alison Preuss

CLASSROOM indiscipline, escalating violence, an inflexible curriculum and burdensome bureaucracy. All have taken their toll in recent years on the profession, which is facing a recruitment crisis of unprecedented proportions. But as teachers quit the classroom amid protests that they are overworked and undervalued, they can console themselves with the fact that their freedom is only a resignation letter away.

Escape is much less straightforward for their pupils. Unlike teachers, they have no union reps, no redress, and a distinct lack of public sympathy. Those who complain are told to “toughen up”, those who show signs of faltering are dispatched to psychologists, and those brave enough to vote with their feet are hunted down by truancy patrols.

The reality is that children’s rights remain subject to adult approval, and never more so than when it comes to education. The law requires parents to ensure that children are properly educated during the compulsory years, and for most this means school attendance – whether they like it or not.

Some freethinking parents have begun to question the anomalies, however. Having seen their children lose the spring in their step and heard their pleas for early release, they feel sure that they cannot really be benefiting from daily incarceration. Somehow the “attendance means attainment” mantra no longer holds credibility.

Fortunately, as far as the law is concerned, it is education – not school – that is compulsory. And despite valiant efforts by the vested interests to suppress it, the word has got out – aided by the Internet, which has exploded the monopoly on information.

Even armed with the right information, double standards are applied to those who opt for education outwith the system. Home educators are invariably asked to justify their choice, the insulting inference being that children need to be protected from their own families. The children’s rights agenda has acquired a sinister new significance, which has nothing to do with individual self-determination and everything to do with state-driven standardisation.

In fact, home educators have an impressive track record. Many thousands of young people are enjoying the benefits of being in charge of their own learning, rather than being force-fed facts that someone else has decided they should know “for their own good”. But diversity is a dangerous thing for the establishment. Too many home educators have been pointing to too many advantages of individualised learning over mass schooling. Furthermore, they have been waving around some formidable research findings and suggesting a radical restructuring of the present model.

Meanwhile, the very organisations that claim to champion children’s rights remain silent about the abuses, preferring to collude with compulsion and support superficial tinkering. While initiatives such as pupil councils are applauded, complaints about the dictatorial nature of the system are summarily dismissed. Compulsion is in children’s “best interests”.

Many ask why they have no corresponding right to reject school. Truancy sweeps, curfews and threats of parental prosecution have failed to stem the tide of disaffection, and the “best interests” argument remains nothing more than a get-out clause to allow adults to retain control.

When it comes to determining their own education, children have no real rights – except, perhaps, the right to remain powerless.


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