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WARD, Colin. Slippery Schooling Issues
Article published on 31 May 2004
last modification on 27 April 2015

by r-c.
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"Our own pursuit of a particular vision of education becomes subordinate to our need to oppose current trends. "

Summerhill School at Leiston, Suffolk, has made the front page story in our regional daily paper, The East Anglian Daily Times, several times in the last month. [1] It’s the school started by A.S. Neill in 1921 and survives today with as principal his daughter Zoe Readhead, who was recently told by the government that the school must be closed unless it meets the standards required by the Education Act of 1996.

When school pupils demonstrated in London last month, support came from the local MP John Gummer, an unloved minister in recent Conservative governments, who talked to the Labour government’s Education Secretary David Blunkett, about the issues involved. The issue for Gummer was that "although the style of education offered at Summerhill school is not one I would choose for my own children, parents should have the right to opt for it". Zoe Readhead remarked that "this is a school that has been inspected every year since 1990 and we are feeling battered and bruised".

Indeed the creeping totalitarianism of the management of education has made the issue not one of freedom in education, but of freedom to follow a different pattern from the utilitarian vision of Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education) and what the Times Educational Supplement calls "the fearsome figure of Chief Inspector Chris Woodhead". Our own pursuit of a particular vision of education becomes subordinate to our need to oppose current trends.

A neighbour told me recently that at her daughter’s primary school in Ipswich, the need to introduce more maths teaching time had resulted in the abandonment of the weekly swimming lesson at the public baths. As she put it, "I would prefer her to he a better swimmer than a better mathematician".

Meanwhile a researcher into anarchist theories of education writes to me to complain that "they’re a slippery bunch, these anarchists" because she finds a whole series of anarchist theories, which, however, share some common features. She lists these as:

1. The absence of coercion from the educational process;

2. Belief in the child’s ’natural’ motivation to learn and insistence on a pedagogy which draws on this;

3. Concern about the child’s capacity to resist an ideology imposed by the school;

4. Education of the ’whole child’.

And she raises with me a specific question "in a pluralistic society, if one takes seriously the idea of letting people run their own lives, what would be the anarchist response to communities/people choosing, for example, to educate their children in an oppressive/religious/fundamentalist/totalitarian manner ... or, at the other end of the spectrum, if such autonomously-run communities were to naturally choose and develop a system resembling something like a parliamentary democracy, would this be objectionable from an anarchist perspective?"

The first of these questions is a live issue here and now. Whether we want to or not, and whether or not we use it, we all pay through taxation for the school system. The rich also pay for expensive private schools. In the absence of an anarchist revolution many of us would like to see the freedom of choice for all approached by some other countries. Fiona Carnie in her excellent chapter on ’Education on a human scale’ in the book Richer Futures (edited by Ken Worpole, Earthscan, 1999), describes how in the Netherlands a variety of schools are financed on the same basis as state schools "with the effect that 70% of children attend what are known as ’private’ schools, but

which are in fact publicly funded". She explains that "in Denmark any group of twelve parents wishing to set up a school will receive 85% of the necessary funds from the state". And she turns to the theme raised by my correspondent: "The question of whether faith schools should receive state funding is a major issue in the debate about diversity. In January 1998 two Muslim schools became part of the English state system amidst much media coverage and public discussion. As a human rights issue, the decision to publicly fund these schools is long overdue. In a system which finances Protestant, Catholic and some Jewish schools, it is essential that Muslim schools are funded too, if there is sufficient parental demand, as a matter of justice. Either we should have no state funded religious schools at all (as in France) or give the same rights to different groups of parents, as long as they fulfil the required criteria for state funding which these Muslim schools have done..."

Now if we lived in a stateless society and funded schools differently, it seems to me that, however much anarchists disapproved of religious indoctrination, they would be laying up trouble for themselves in preventing parents from putting their educational ideas into effect. Fiona Carnie argues that schools associated with religious faiths will continue to exist whether or not they receive state funding, and adds that "it is surely preferable from the children’s standpoint that they are part of the system rather than outside it and are thus subject to inspection and required to meet certain standards".

This is where anarchists would part company with her. In the age of control- obsessed governments like that of Thatcher/Major and that of Blair, school inspectors have changed like everything else. Neill used to have friendly arguments with the Inspectorate and would publish the HMI reports in his books about the school. But as his daughter found, you can’t have a discussion with the hard men of Ofsted.

What can we say as anarchists, except that in an anarchist society school inspection would be undertaken by children for the Consumers’ Association?

Colin Ward

Notes :

[1This article was first published in Freedom Press, 21st August 1999.


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