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December 19, 2002
"Compulsory education is about compulsion not education"

There has been the mother of all comment battles concerning a posting yesterday by David Carr on samizdata, on the subject of the jailed mother of two truanting girls:

A mother-of-two has been jailed for failing to prevent her daughters from playing truant from school.

The Brighton woman was sentenced to seven days in prison and is only the second parent in the country to be jailed because her children skipped lessons.

Says David:

I am at a loss to understand how these two children, or the society of which they are a part, have anything to gain from being forced back into a situation where they are likely to be nothing except sullen and resentful prisoners? Very few people take the view that forcing human beings to work in state-owned factories on government-mandated projects will be in any way beneficial yet nearly everybody is entrenched in the dogmatic belief that doing the very same thing to human beings under the age of 18 will be nothing but beneficial.

This is an orthodoxy to which I once held myself: education is good, but children don't realise this. Therefore prescribed and generally agreed packages of learning must be forced on them for their own good. Is this true? I must confess that I have no ready alternatives available nor any glib answers on what parents should do instead. But I do know that I am increasingly unsettled by noxious enforcements of the kind reported above and by the quiet, persuasive ideas of people like Alice Bachini.

Compulsory education is about compulsion not education. It is a received wisdom to which I am finding it increasingly difficult to subscribe and which I believe should be revisited and re-examined at a systemic level.

The comments that this posting provoked are as contrary and as impassioned as any on samizdata that I can remember. For instance, Peter Cuthbertson:

I realise this won't move you one iota, but when this happened last time, both the truants in question started attending school again, and the mother admitted that making her face her responsibilities in such a way was the right thing to do.

If you have a principled objection to compulsory education, this won't change your mind. But clearly plenty of good can be derived from such rulings. I hope to see more of them.

"SmilinK" agrees:

Asking children if they *want* to go to school is insane. No one wants to go somewhere where they are forced to work, where they are judged by the results of said work, and where negative consequences ensue for poor effort. It's always easier to sit at home and watch the tube. Compulsory education prevents people from making that most erroneous choice, through ignorance or sloth.

To let children decide for themselves, with their still-growing brains and total inability to plan ahead, would be truly immoral. Not to mention the degradation of their lives as a result.

Mike Peach:

All a child needs is a desire to learn. All that school does from day one is tell children not to have a desire to learn but to do as they are told.

I despair of your attitude. Instead of asking the question "Do you want to go to school?" ask them if they want to learn and the answer will be resounding "Yes". That is until they have been to school and had the desire to learn knocked out of them.

I could go on and on but unfortunately the only way you will see the light is to take the "school" out of yourself.

By the way, a year ago I would have agreed with your view. However, having had my son out of school for that time now and watched him grow and develop into a rational, independent and free spirited individual I can confirm that "school" is nothing but a confidence trick and a totally illogical one at that.

And so it goes on, and on and on. Something tells me the various teams aren't going to convince one another. For what it's worth, the dominant opinion seemed to favour compulsory education, but to oppose state provision. Peach and Bachini versus the Rest. This seems to be emerging as the pattern in this corner of the blogosphere, with the surprise switch by Carr being the one change.

Me? For the moment my attitude is: Man Who Sit On Fence See Further. I'm thinking about it. Because I'm sorry, but I see genuine merit in both teams.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:13 PM
Category: Parents and children

I'm uneasy about joining a debate that has such polarised sides, but, tin hat on, here goes!
In my opinion only literacy should be compulsory educationwise (and perhaps the 4 Rules in maths). It should not only be compulsory but it should be 'taught'. Most teachers -and a fair nunber of home educators it seems - don't know how to 'teach' reading. Trainee teachers certainly aren't taught how to teach reading on their courses. Of course, if the children, in school or educated otherwise, are in the lucky 80 percent who will pick up reading eventually whatever method is used that's fine, but unfortunately children don't arrive at school or in their families with 'I'm in the 20 percent with phonological difficulties' printed on their foreheads. And yes, I do have a problem with the idea that it's fine for a child not to be reading until they are 10 or so, just as long as they eventually catch on. I do not believe that their education in the intervening years can be adequate whilst they remain illiterate.

Comment by: Susan Godsland on December 20, 2002 05:29 PM

People who cannot yet read, can still learn. With access to the world, to TV and computer and books on tape, and a helper to read things to them when they want to know something that needs reading, pre-reading children are learning all the time. And when they do start to read, it comes fast and furious.

Perhaps the 20% who have trouble learning to read, would be able to sort it out by their early teens (or earlier) if they are not analyzed and labeled as having a particular sort of difficulty early-on. I've seen children learn to read, with only the help they ask for in learning about how letters sound and what a word says, and being read to when they want to be, much later than they would have to learn in order to be accepted as 'normal' in a school. I suspect such children would be labeled challenged in some way when they confuse d and b and p and q, and can't remember some of the letters' sounds. If not made to feel bad about not knowing these things, if encouraged with a 'you'll get it, in your own time', and helped to learn about these things in ways that make sense to them, I suspect that most children will be reading when they are ready. Maybe some of those problems are caused by pushing children to read too early, before they are ready. Any problem will become apparent and solutions can be found.

Anyhow, that is an alternative vision to the 'compelled literacy' one.

Comment by: Fritz on December 24, 2002 05:54 PM

re. Susan's observation that:

"Trainee teachers certainly aren't taught how to teach reading on their courses"

Bl**dy hell. What are they taught then?!!!!


Comment by: cydonia on January 2, 2003 02:30 PM

Make sure you still have something worth wishing for.

Comment by: Munisteri Ben on January 20, 2004 06:07 AM

I believe that all students should not be forced to stay in schools. Throughout my education I found many students who caused problems for those students who really did want to learn. That is what school is about, learning. It is not about the government to deciding what we should or should not learn. Learning is about letting the imagination to soar and to ask questions anwsering all your wants and needs.It is not to be used as a free babysitting service or a prison to those who can't deal with the school structure. Do not get me wrong I do believe that there needs to have structure in school systems, and that children should at least learn how to read and write but at a certain age you know whether you want to learn in school or for it to be your social hall. How is it fair to a student like me, who wants to learn, to deal with distractive students who have no desire to learn at all? In my opinion there are always plenty of services the uneducated perform; McDonald's will always need someone to be flipping those hamburgers.

Comment by: Rebecca Bryant on January 6, 2005 10:25 PM
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