December 26, 2002
The Breakfast Club is now illegal

Now it seems to me that pupils can have civil rights. Or pupils can be made to be pupils whether they want to be pupils or not. But it's hard to see how both arrangements can be made simultaneously. But consider this story:

A 15-year-old schoolgirl is suing her education authority claiming that school punishments breached her civil rights, it emerged today. The case could lead to detentions being abolished in Scotland.

Freya McDonald, from Tomnavoulin in Morayshire, claims that 11 detentions in nine months for offences she describes as "trivial" disrupted her education and affected her health.

A solicitor for the girl and her mother, Annie, has now written to Moray council intimating their intention to sue under the European Convention on Human Rights, claiming the detentions were unlawful and seeking compensation for stress.

The family solicitor, Cameron Fyfe, confirmed that if successful the action could mean the end of detention as a punishment in Scotland's schools.

Under Article 5 of the European Convention, detention can only take place if there is a "lawful order".

He said this would mean that a detention due to run in a child's free time, as it had in Freya's case, could not come from the school itself but would need this legal authority.

Now part of me is delighted at all this. If you can't have human rights for children and compulsory education, and if you are going to have human rights for children similar to those accorded to adults, then what will happen to compulsory education is exactly what I want to happen to it.

Yet the truth surely is that a lot of people are going to suffer from the appalling philosophical and legal incoherence of all this. No one is saying: "Compulsory education is an affront to human rights." But that is what should be said, by someone involved in this argument, for this argument to be recognised for what it is. Instead, the illusion is being allowed to persist that children can simultaneously be treated like people with rights, and as the legitimate objects of compulsion.

I think most of us are familiar with the idea that good teachers are not so much teachers who follow good rules, as teachers who are clear and honest and consistent and impartial in following whatever rules they do follow. A consistently and honestly authoritarian teacher is preferable to an inconsistently liberal teacher. It seems to me that the adults involved in this case are behaving like bad teachers in this sense.

The confusion is going to be bad for children, bad for parents, bad for teachers, and good only for lawyers.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:11 AM
Category: Compulsion