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Category Archive • Bullying
November 19, 2004
Politically correct segregation

I planned to have only one posting today, and I always try to avoid the USA, what with there being so many USA education bloggers covering their stuff themselves, but this BBC story is too good to miss:

Are pupils at the world's first "gay" state school victims of segregation or symbols of progressive thinking?

The majority of pupils at Harvey Milk High School in New York are gay and were bullied at their previous school for their sexuality.

Harvey Milk refuses to be classified as a "gay school" even though that is the general perception of it from opponents and supporters alike. But it says its unique brand of segregated education fully deserves its public funding.

It says it provides for a small population of victimised and bullied pupils who are made to feel so freakish in mainstream high schools that they are falling behind in lessons, too scared to go to school and missing out on a proper education.

I am strongly inclined to favour that most extreme form of segregation that consists in children only going to schools they like going to, and teachers only teaching children they liked teaching. If that happened, segregation of all kinds would probably flourish.

So, this strikes me as a quite big step in the right direction. It insinuates a Political Incorrect (i.e. correct) idea into the minds of people who are otherwise only capable of thinking Politically Correctly (i.e. incorrectly). Good.

At its heart is the entirely correct idea that the answer to bullying – the only answer if you rule out punishment of bullies violently enough to make them desist – is to separate bullies from their victims.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:08 PM
Category: Bullying
[2] [0]
November 01, 2004
Education related violence around the world

Here's an answer to the bullying problem:

UTSUNOMIYA – A 23-year-old unemployed man who murdered his former high school classmate has been arrested after he turned himself in, police said.

Tsutomu Yoshihara, from Imaichi, Tochigi Prefecture, said the victim used to bully him at school …

That'll teach him.

Meanwhile, in Fiji, they are fretting about other kinds of violence, by teachers upon pupils:

Such punishment in schools, which are supposed to be custodians of values of peace and tolerance, can only lead to children growing up to become violent adults.

Supposed by whom? Plus, is the next bit actually true? In Britain the rules about teachers attacking pupils have tightened a lot recently, but the resulting adults are not noticeably less violent. More, if anything.

Why can't they just say what they surely think? – which is that adults hitting kids is horrid, and they ought to do a lot less of it.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the students of the Punjab University are showing the world what they are made of:

THE recent clash between students of the Social Work Department (SWD) at the Punjab University (PU) and Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT) activists has raised the question of security for students and teachers, especially females, living on campus. Unfortunately, the PU administration, consisting of retired army personnel and higher authorities including the PU Chancellor, who is also the Punjab governor, and other federal high ups are quiet on the issue.

The incident took place last Tuesday when some students from the Space Science Department (SSD), allegedly involved and backed by IJT, beat up students of the SWD. The SWD chairman saved the students by hiding them inside the library. The incident is a result of the IJT’s attempt to control all PU departments, which is not liked by the majority of the SWD faculty. That is why some 'students' also misbehaved with some teachers, leading to tension in the Academic Staff Association.

Sounds like a Tom Sharpe novel.

This, meanwhile, turned out to be less exciting than the headline.

PROPOSALS to build 10 all-weather floodlit pitches has divided a community because of yobs.

Residents attended a meeting on Friday about the plans to build the astroturf pitches near Whitchurch High School in Cardiff.

The school would have use of them before 4pm and they would then be available for community use and for the capital’s five-a-side football league in the evening.

Some residents on neighbouring Clos Treoda and Glan y Nant terrace worry that the pitches will be a magnet for loud youths causing trouble at night and cause car parking chaos.

But many think these facilities are what is needed to keep youngsters out of trouble.

I think that many have a point. Gathering young people together to do something improving to them, no matter how improving it is, is not a complete answer to society's problems if, after a couple of hours of improving them, you then spit them out in a great gang onto the streets, at nine o'clock at night.

More educationa related violence news, from Israel, South Africa, Wales (again – the real thing this time), and of course the USA (most of that is USA stuff).

Have a nice week.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:32 PM
Category: BullyingViolence
[0] [0]
September 25, 2004
Cyberbullying

This is a depressing article, about cyberbullying. It's timesonline, which means non-Brits may soon lose it, so I'll quote at length:

INCREASING numbers of children are falling victim to cyber bullies, who have adopted the internet as their preferred weapon of humiliation and abuse.

Police experts and children's charities are concerned at the increase of cyber-bullying, which is estimated to have risen by at least 30 per cent over the past two years.

E-mail, text messages and website chat rooms are the new forums for threatening children by stealth, out of sight of parents and teachers, around the clock.

Bullying claims the lives of around 20 teenagers a year and thousands more suffer physical and psychological torment. Charities are voicing concern that this new phenomenon is "growing like wildfire".

In 2001, mobile telephones were among the most popular Christmas presents for children. Since then, cyber-bullying has risen by at least 30 per cent, Kidscape, a leading children's charity, says.

Yet as teachers crack down on abuse in the classroom, police admit that cyber bullies can be harder to identify and quash than their traditional counterparts.

In May Mouth2Mouth.tk turned from an innocent internet forum for local children in Hemel Hempstead to chat into a vicious gallery of hatred and abuse. Within months, one humiliated teenager had tried to kill herself and another had lost all his friends after abusive messages were given out in his name.

Parents and anxious teenagers contacted Liz Carnell, who runs Bullying Online at www.bullying.co.uk, a charity set up to counter cyber abuse.

"It was appalling. There were death threats, racist messages and threats of violence. So I spent an entire weekend answering all the messages and telling the abusers the damage they were doing," she said.

Cyber bullying began, Ms Carnell believes, after children were given mobile phones for Christmas in 2001. Initially, they made silent phone calls, but since then the abuse has transferred increasingly to public humiliation on the internet.

And so on.

If this is true, then it is of course depressing. If it is being exaggerated, and if actually bullying on the Internet is intrinsically easier to avoid than bullying face-to-face in a school (my suspicion), then that too is depressing. Expect (as David Carr would say) lots of internet regulation "for the sake of the children".

My strong belief is that bullying happens when there is no escape from it. It happens, that is to say, when it can. In a well ordered and intelligent world, bullies cannot bully, because their victims just go away. If the bullies as a result take over a space which is not theirs, the owner of it then chucks them out, if he has not done so already, and if he has any concern for his own interests.

And my internet-ignorant guess is that cyber-bullying is at least greatly intensified by the existence of social systems where escape is not possible, i.e. schools where attendance is, if not legally compulsory, at the very least extremely difficult to get out of.

After all, if you cyber-bully someone, but never actually meet them to deliver, and to share with your sniggering cohorts, those all-important lines that go: "What are you talking about? – Miss, I don't know what he's talking about – What have I done? – He's shouting at me for no reason", why bother? Cyber-bullying, in other words, only really works if combined with the old-fashioned, pre-Internet kind.

But I'd love to hear from people who know more about the nuances of the Internet than I.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:43 PM
Category: Bullying
[5] [0]
September 22, 2004
"How sociable is school anyway?"

Outstanding letter in today's Times:

Studying at home

From Danielle Shanks

Sir, I'm a 15-year-old, home-educated student and for me, leaving school was one of the best things I've done. I left about a year ago, thoroughly miserable after being bullied for three years and after various meetings with teachers about it, which achieved nothing.

I am now doing a correspondence course.

Contrary to the popular belief, it is actually quite easy to make new friends outside of school. I've kept in touch with one friend from school and I play the violin, so I go to an orchestra every Saturday, where I've met new friends. I'm also a member of " Education otherwise", which is a home-ed organisation, where I write to various pen-pals.

How sociable is school anyway? You have all your cliques, but if you don't fit in you can be ostracised.

Yours faithfully,
DANIELLE SHANKS,
56 Vaux Crescent,
Walton on Thames,
Surrey KT12 4HD.
September 20.

Here is the link to Education otherwise. Otherwise, I think it says it all.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:43 PM
Category: BullyingHome educationSocialisation
[3] [0]
July 28, 2004
"I don't think the school has enough power to get rid of these people"

It's been all over the front pages for days, and finally I have a comment to offer that goes beyond saying: how appalling.

THE mother of murdered schoolboy Luke Walmsley yesterday branded his killer an "evil bully".

Heartbroken Jayne Walmsley spoke out after Alan Pennell, 16, was sentenced to at least 12 years in jail for killing her 14-year-old son.

Judge Mr Justice Goldring told him he could serve longer if he didn't show remorse.

He said: "In your pocket was a flick knife. I have seen it and it is an evil weapon. You thrust the knife into his chest.
"It was not done in the spur of the moment.

"Although giving evidence you expressed remorse ... I find it difficult to accept."

Mrs Walmsley, 41, said she didn't blame staff at Birkbeck School in North Somercotes, Lincs, for her son's death on November 4 last year.

She said: "He was just an evil boy who was a bully. It was always younger children he picked on. I don't think the school has enough power to get rid of these people."

I generally dislike the modern tabloid habit of deferring to and publicising the legislative opinions of the bereaved, and of crafting new laws in honour of their loved ones, instead of tombstones. But what if Mrs Walmsley's a change in the law to allow schools to expel dangerous bullies more easily than they can now were to be her chosen memorial for her dead son? I just might change my mind about this practice.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:24 PM
Category: BullyingExclusion
[1] [0]
July 19, 2004
More Tsarism

Tsar2s.jpgMicklethwait's Law of Tsardom states that when they appoint a Something Tsar, it means they've given up hope completely of ever solving the problem of Something. See also this Samizdata posting, in which I spell it Czar, which could be a mistake.

There is something especially absurd about the idea of a Bullying Tsar. This is reminiscent of Lenin's classic solution to the problem of bureaucracy in early revolutionary Russia: he appointed a committee to look into it.

Gratuitous Tsar picture on the right there.

Actually, birds of prey attacking bullies might be quite a good idea …

Seriously, I believe that if there can ever be said to be a root cause of bullying, that route cause is the lack of freedom of association. Bullying happens because it can, because the bullyee cannot escape. If bullies just found themselves surrounded by a big blank space instead of other people to torment, they'd stop, because they'd have no choice. Meanwhile, it would help a lot if schools were allowed to simply chuck out persistent bullies, which is the other way freedom of association expresses itself.

This is all part of why the home education option is so important, and why school choice, for children as well as for parents, is so important. And there need to be lots of schools to choose between, otherwise it's not enough of a choice. That means smaller schools as part of the mix.

I doubt if these Bullying Tsars will be suggesting anything along those lines.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:02 AM
Category: Bullying
[0] [1]
July 10, 2004
Susan Tomes on how Sándor Végh was nasty to a Japanese student: "… a powerful teacher can inhibit as well as inspire"

In the latest issue of Gramophone, there appears a review, by Gramophone editor James Jolly, of Beyond the Notes by the noted pianist Susan Tomes.

SusanTomes.jpg

Alongside his review, Jolly also includes a passage from the book, about the celebrated Hungarian musician Sándor Végh, and about his limitations as a teacher:

I particularly remember an occasion in Italy. There was a Japanese girl in the class who was greatly in awe of [Sandor] Vegh, and she told me she was inwardly trembling in all her lessons. He seemed to smell her fear and subjected her to a merciless spate of criticism, mocking her demeanour, her femininity, the way she wilted under criticism, and telling her that she didn't understand music at all. Naturally, her playing got worse and worse. One night towards the end of the course the students gathered in a square in the village and sat round in a big circle. Someone had a violin with them and played a folk tune on it. Someone else suggested that the violin be passed around the circle, and that other people might contribute folk songs from their own country. And so the violin eventually came to this Japanese girl. To everyone's great surprise, she played some sad Japanese folk songs in an entrancing style, sweet, poignant and natural with no trace of the physical stiffness we had all seen in her lessons. This was a very important scene for us all to witness, and I think everyone understood then that a powerful teacher can inhibit as well as inspire.

What a swine! I have lots of this man's CDs, but I'll think hard before getting any more.

SandorVegh.gif

Perhaps if challenged about such cruelty, Vegh might say that the music profession is a tough one and if you can't take grief you should be chased out of it now. Sort of like army basic training. But if the profession is tough it will do that anyway. Why create pre-emptive grief? Why not just try to teach music and music making, and let the grief be postponed for as long as possible? And – who knows? – maybe, if encouraged, the Japanese girl will make it as a performer after all. It's not as if, like a badly trained soldier, a lack of early grief is liable to kill her. Anyway, music is not the same as warfare. (Although maybe I'm being naive about that, and actually it is.)

However, note that the chapter from which this snippet comes is called "Sándor Végh and György Sebök – a tribute to their teaching", so the old monster must have been doing something right.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:08 PM
Category: Bullying
[1] [1]
June 10, 2004
German bullies jailed

Here is a report on the next chapter in this horrible story:

A German court yesterday jailed the teenage ringleaders in a class of students that tortured a schoolmate for months and posted film clips of the abuse on the internet.

Good.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:21 PM
Category: Bullying
[0] [0]
May 26, 2004
"… at least twice a week over two months …"

This is the worst case of bullying I can recall reading about since starting this blog:

Students making up an entire class in Germany have been accused of filming their torture of a new pupil and posting clips on the internet.

The 11 pupils, aged between 16 and 18, went on trial yesterday, facing between them a 31-page list of charges that include beating, kicking and sexually humiliating their victim, identified only as Dieter, 18.

The attacks started weeks after Dieter joined the Werner-von-Siemens school in Hildesheim, near Hanover. His classmates took him to a store-room, where they stripped and severely beat him. They went on beating him at least twice a week over two months.

Different students participated in torture sessions, which became more frequent and cruel. By the end Dieter was being stabbed with screwdrivers, forced to eat chalk and to chew cigarette butts as well as occasionally having a bucket placed over his head while his attackers took turns pummelling him with their fists.

The students are charged with a total of 26 attacks. They allegedly filmed the abuse with a digital camera.

Nothing to add.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:27 PM
Category: Bullying
[2] [0]
November 20, 2003
No more bullying … or else

The government is going to put a stop to bullying in schools:

The suggestions are part of an anti-bullying charter, which all schools in England will be expected to sign.

And what will happen to any schools which refuse to sign this anti-bullying charter? Will they perchance be ... bullied?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:15 AM
Category: Bullying
[5] [0]
November 15, 2003
Alas all too believable

I almost completely agree with Alice Bachini, about this:

The father of a persistent truant has said he would rather go to prison than force his bullied child to attend school.

Gary Standford is facing prosecution by his local education authority over 15-year-old Darren's failure to attend Tunbridge Wells High School in Kent. But he claims that forcing his son to go to the school would be the equivalent of child abuse, as he is being hounded by a gang of bullies.

"Putting him into a new school or college would solve everything but putting me in to prison – well all that would mean is there will be no one to look after my child," he said. Mr Standford, who lives in Tunbridge Wells, is due in court soon unless the matter can be resolved.

Alice says that, on the face of it, this is unbelievable, which is the only bit in her posting about this that I don't fully agree with.

But:

A spokesman for Kent County Council said taking parents to court was always a last resort. "The education welfare officers have been in contact with the family over a number of months and bullying has not been mentioned as a factor before. No-one wants this to happen but it seems to have been the only way."

In other words, if Kent County Council are to be believed, Dad could have just made it up to excuse his dereliction of duty.

Personally, I don't think that a child not attending a school should require an explanation, any more than me walking out of HMV Oxford Street the other day without having bought any classical CDs – which, this time really unbelievably, did actually happen – requires me to explain myself to HMV. (Or to put it another way: in education as with most other things - such as transport - number 37.)

Nevertheless, the rules being the rules they now are, Dad has accused Kent Council of wanting to abuse children, and Kent Council are calling him a liar.

Or, the Telegraph has made it up, which should not be discounted, as anyone who has ever had direct dealings with a newspaper-reported event will almost certainly know.

Sounds like there'll be more to hear of this story. The Council certainly seem to have raised the stakes.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:44 PM
Category: BullyingCompulsion
[0] [0]
September 25, 2003
Bullying and how to stop it

I've only just read this piece about bullying from the Telegraph of last Monday by Katie Jarvis. The twist is, it was her son doing it.

Katie Jarvis and her son are almost as much the victims of compulsory education as were and are the children her son was bullying.

In the adult world, bullying as nasty as routinely happens in schools is quite rare. This is because adults who hate their place of work for any reason are entitled, even expected, to think about moving elsewhere. This may not be easy, but the option is there, and is a respected and regular part of the culture. Party conversation: Like your job? No it's crap actually? Are you thinking of moving? Trying to, any suggestions? It's not that adults are any nicer than children, far from it. It is simply that the rules governing childrens' lives are now so nasty. Most of them are in prison. Prisons automatically contain bullying. It cannot be otherwise.

The idea of children deciding for themselves that they can't stand the school they are at and simply deciding that they are going to go elsewhere, or nowhere, ought to be as much a routine of childhood life as similar arrangements are for adults. Not that common, but plainly thinkable if a school becomes ghastly, for whatever reason. If that were the case, children like Katie Jarvis' son would simply not be able to become bullies, because they would run out of victims. A couple of the victims would threaten to take their business (vouchers, money, government spending triggers, whatever) elsewhere, and if the school was lucky they'd say why, and Jarvis fils would either stop or be chucked out himself, and he'd almost certainly stop. All that non-judgemental persuasion that Mother Jarvis subjected him to (what happened to the victims during all that palaver I don't know) would be beside the point.

Ultimately, I don't believe that compulsory schooling will be ended by mere laws. I think it will be ripped to bits by young teenagers (and in many cases in alliance with their parents) who ain't fuckin' (my French is necessary to make my point and I do not ask your pardon for it) gonna take it any more. Pre-school-leaving teenagers already have the power to make life a misery for each other and for their minders, and they constantly do. All that is required is for them to become more politically conscious, and they can simply unscrew the lid of the tin and climb out, whenever they like. Here's what we want: we want out. That's reasonable. If you don't let us out here's what we'll do. That kind of thing.

If the motives of some escapees for wanting to escape are criminal, then that's a police matter and a criminal law matter, not an "education" matter, and let the law take its course. If a thirteen year old leaves school to commit crimes and she does, send her to what we all agree is a prison. If their motives and subsequent behaviour are not criminal, then just what is the problem?

If this blog were somehow to become a small part of that process, I would be very happy.

And to say it again: I'm in favour of good (and varied) schools run in accordance with good (and varied) rules. Tight ships. Pink fluffy bunny ships. Whatever people want to sail in and don't have to be press-ganged into. I don't see any conflict there.

I don't see any problem with discussing what good teaching is all about, and how maths is best taught and how reading and writing are best taught, just so long as the victims of it are allowed to leave if they can't stand it or switch to something they consider better.

Class dismissed. That's if you are still here. You can leave this blog any time you like, without explanation. I didn't make that rule, and I don't always like it, but that is the rule. Actually, I do like it. I don't want unhappy readers of this badmouthing it everywhere else they go. I practise what I'm preaching here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:25 PM
Category: BullyingCompulsion
[0] [0]
September 14, 2003
The limits of school protection

Email:

Brian,

Your kind of thing, I think – LINK.

Regards,

The Philosophical Cowboy (nom de blog)

Yes it is. Many thanks.

The Cowboy's starting point is this Guardian story about bullying from last week. His summary:

Essentially, staying over at a friend, Emma's, the protagonist, Vicky, had been the subject of an attempted sexual assault by the friend's father. The police seemed convinced by her story, but the school did little to protect her from the consequences of her reporting the incident …

And she then got all hell broken loose all over her, by Emma's older sister and all her friends at the school they all shared. Eventually Vicky was rescued by her parents going private with her.

The Cowboy says that this is the kind of story that makes people say that all parents should have the chance to make a choice like that, not just the ones who can afford it. Amen.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:41 PM
Category: BullyingParents and children
[0] [0]
September 03, 2003
More bullying

From today's Guardian:

Local education authorities are to have their own anti-bullying "tsars" under government plans announced today.

I feel another Micklethwait's Law coming on: Whenever they appoint a "tsar" for anything, it means they don't know what the $%$@!!! to do. And a "tsar" to stop bullying? Listen to yourselves.

Specialist behaviour consultants are to be installed in all 150 LEAs in England and Wales at the cost of £75m.

Consultants. First, it will end up costing far more than that. Second, there'll still be bullying going on after the money has all been spent.

A new national anti-bullying charter will also be sent to all schools in an effort to highlight the problem.

To replace the previous anti-bullying charter?

Schools are already required to have anti-bullying policies, but the deaths over the summer of three children who had all been badly bullied prompted calls for fresh action.

Whatever you did last time that achieved nothing, do more of it.

Police are still investigating the deaths of 16-year-old Karl Peart and 15-year-old Gemma Dimmick, both pupils at Hirst high school in Ashington, Northumberland, who died in June.

Enough. I'm too depressed.

Answer to bullying. First, make it so schools get paid according to how many children go there. Second: let anyone who wants to leave a school leave it. That would make bullying bad for business. Meanwhile: don't know.

If you personally are being bullied at some horrible dump of a school, and they (your parents, teachers, etc.) won't let you even talk about going somewhere else instead, make them an offer. They let you go somewhere else, and in exchange you don't torch the damn place. There was a boy at my posh school who, rumour had it, got to go sports car racing every Wednesday afternoon by this method. In general, the secret is to combine extreme reasonableness with the threat of extreme violence if reason gets no response. Neither sweet reason not violence on their own are sufficient to solve such problems.

When children do this kind of thing to adults, they are called troublemakers. When adults do it to each other they are called diplomats.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:29 PM
Category: Bullying
[1] [0]
August 26, 2003
A thirty-five year old midget goes from school hell to school heaven

And, as if to make my point for me, again, about how some schools are, for some children, an absolute joy, here's another Samizdata commenter, "Monsyne Dragon":

From my experiences as a kid, I know EXACTLY how this poor kid felt. I also was very mature for my age, from day one. My parents called me the "35-year old midget" . (U.S.) Public school was hell. Utter hell. I ALSO had the good fortune of going to a private school for two years. It was a school specifically for very talented and/or very high IQ kids. About 80% of the students there were "over-mature" There were NO troubles with socialization there. The kids weren't isolated, and there was none of the unending harassment of the public schools. The kids there weren't trying to be over-adult in compensation for anything, they were just being themselves, and when put together with others of the same level of maturity, they were FINE. Kids who had been doing HORRIBLY grade-wise (including me) got top grades. Some of the kids there had been getting violent out of frustration at public school previously. There was none of that at the private school.

The public schools' political agenda simply won't let them recognize several basic facts:

1) People mature at different rates, mentally, emotionally, and physically.

2) For kids, being in a large group consisting of exclusively the same physical age as themselves is UNNATURAL, and not very good for their development (my private school divided kids into groups by broad age-ranges. kids 4-5 years apart were in the same group)

"Modern" public schools foster a "Lord of the Flies" atmosphere that does harm to many and may lead some to violence, either against themselves, as in this case, or against others.

Every now and again, when you ramble on about education, you say something or talk about something which yanks the argument away from the arid vacuities of national statistics to the inescapable truths of individual experience. This Guardian piece, and my various links and reactions to it, have had this effect, although mostly at Samizdata rather than here.

I really recommend these Samizdata comments. Monsyne Dragon isn't the only one showing a few of his educational wounds to illustrate more general things. There are others, all with important points to make that are worth attending to, including the point that I probably (at Samizdata) went way over the top in blaming the wretched mother as much as I did. It's hard not to blame somebody in situations like this. But, as "Eric Blair" says (I'm guessing that inverted commas are once again in order):

I'm not sure I'd blame the mother too much. I know what it was like to be bullied, and the 'rents were the last ones I would have told.

I do blame the teachers. They knew I was being bullied, and did nothing about it. Worse, they tried to tell me I was the problem. Stupid shits. I can't believe how angry this is making me thinking about it after 30 years.

God, what an ugly thing it is.

Amelia asked this:

Where was the Dad during all this?

Indeed. It all rather reminds me of this movie, in which Hugh Grant filled in for Dad.

I'm guessing Monsyne Dragon had a Dad paying attention to his circumstances, if only to pay for the nice school. Yes, it would seem so. He says "my parents".

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:48 PM
Category: Bullying
[1] [0]
Paul Graham on how schools are really prisons

After doing the piece below on the Thomas Thompson case, I rehashed it for Samizdata, because I thought it deserved … to be rehashed for Samizdata. The comments are now beginning to accumulate there, one of them from Rob Fisher, who says:

I'm reminded of an essay by Paul Graham about school society. It's ostensibly about why smarter than average kids are unpopular at school, but it touches upon some deeper truths about what school is really like. I hope I'm not quoting too much, but it seems relevant.

It does indeed. Below I reproduce the bits that Rob picked out:

They know, in the abstract, that kids are monstrously cruel to one another, just as we know in the abstract that people get tortured in poorer countries. But, like us, they don't like to dwell on this depressing fact, and they don't see evidence of specific abuses unless they go looking for it.

Notice that Graham doesn't say that "in the abstract people in poorer countries are monstrously cruel to one another". He merely notes that cruelty happens, without claiming that the people being cruel are cruel by their inherent nature. Yet he makes that exact claim about children. I think he's flat wrong, and that children, like adults, are nice or nasty depending on the pressures they face. A few are truly evil, even in a nice world. A few are saints, even in a nasty world. Most children, like most adults, go either way, depending.

Public school teachers are in much the same position as prison wardens. Wardens' main concern is to keep the prisoners on the premises. They also need to keep them fed, and as far as possible prevent them from killing one another. Beyond that, they want to have as little to do with the prisoners as possible, so they leave them to create whatever social organization they want. From what I've read, the society that the prisoners create is warped, savage, and pervasive, and it is no fun to be at the bottom of it.

That's certainly true. But then comes this:

And as for the schools, they were just holding pens within this fake world. Officially the purpose of schools is to teach kids. In fact their primary purpose is to keep kids all locked up in one place for a big chunk of the day so adults can get things done. And I have no problem with this: in a specialized industrial society, it would be a disaster to have kids running around loose.

I bloody well do have a "problem with this". I think that prisons are inherently savage places. I think the way to handle the disasters of kids "running around loose" would be to deal with each disaster case by case, as adult "disasters" are dealt with, rather than by imprisoning all children, even if they can quite see the point of not being allowed to run around loose. Besides which: what happens during the school holidays. Some adults have their work cut out, but not all.

What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren't told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates. Kids are sent off to spend six years memorizing meaningless facts in a world ruled by a caste of giants who run after an oblong brown ball, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And if they balk at this surreal cocktail, they're called misfits.

But if you tell children quite clearly that they are in prison, some of them are going to be all the keener to escape, and if you stop them, then where does that leave any plan for a kinder, gentler prison?

It seems to me that any curriculum, no matter what combination of activities it contains, will be meaningless and stultifying to many children. The idea that you can solve the problem of a compulsory curriculum by having a different compulsory curriculum is to concentrate on tinkering with the wrong half of that phrase. (The trouble with "progressive" education is that it grants the child every freedom imaginable, except the freedom to go somewhere else if the child thinks it's horrible or a waste of time. Freedom must include the freedom to leave.)

To make a more general point, many regular readers of this blog may be puzzled by the way I oscillate between arguing for children's liberation, as in this post, and quite polite discussions of this or that school or teaching method, often of a highly disciplined and "structured" sort, for example as done in the British Army, or as might be involved in them being sent away to a school in Romania. The reason is simple. I believe in freedom for children. And I believe in good teaching, which can most definitely involve highly structured teaching. Freedom means you can leave. It doesn't mean that you can tyrannise your teacher in his classroom. Some kids sent to Romania might be imprisoned there, if they want out but aren't allowed out. But the lucky ones would only go, and then go back, back if they liked it and felt they were getting good things from it, despite the inevitable downsides of one sort or another.

Practically any half-decent teacher is welcomed by some children, and is simultaneously experienced as a tyrant by other children who are forced to submit to that teacher against their will. In other words, there is actually, now, quite a lot of freedom for many children. Many children are living pretty much the life they want, given the choices they now have, which explains why quite a lot of officially compulsory schools are actually quite nice places, instead of being run by the nastiest psychos in them. (In particular, many children would surely be horrified if obliged to stay at home and be mucked about by their parents. Freedom and home schooling are absolutely not the same thing, however large the overlap may often be.) Hence (a) my unswerving belief in freedom for children, combined with (b) my eagerness to discuss sympathetically the work of many apparently "compulsory" teachers and teaching systems now. It may seem a contradiction, but from where I sit, it's not.

Graham, it seems to me, is honest enough to see what many schools really are and what many schools really do, but he draws back from the conclusion that, it seems to me, ought to follow. They are (for many children) prisons. And they ought not to be (for any children).

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:39 PM
Category: BullyingHome education
[0] [0]
August 25, 2003
An overdose of school

This is a fascinating and thoroughly depressing article, about a boy who killed himself because he was so dreadfully unhappy at school.

Sandra Thompson was used to her son's weekend rhythm - the immediate relaxation and laughter of Friday afternoons, the dark mood that descended every Sunday as another week loomed. "With the first mention of school, Thomas must have had the same thoughts - are they going to be at the bus stop, are they going to get me today, do I have enough money on me to cover what they take?

Simply, he should have got out of that place at once, and pursued his very definite interests in living a more adult life, and done it in the adult way to which he was clearly suited.

There were reasons for that singling out, numerous and at the same time insufficient. Thomas was a highly articulate child, well-spoken, and without the usual local slur. He was overweight. He was easier with adults than children, and more confident around girls than lads. He preferred the Human League to Eminem. And because of this he was bullied, relentlessly. And because of that, on the afternoon of July 2, he took an overdose of painkillers and died later that day. He was 11 years old.

It's seldom you come across a story where the contrast between what a child was doing and what that child ought to have been doing is so screamingly obvious.

I would like to think that this article reflects a deeper disenchantment with the whole demented idea of compulsory education itself, among the Guardian-article-writing classes.

Please go and read the whole thing.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:46 PM
Category: Bullying
[1] [0]
November 02, 2002
"They came in and wanted to check up on everything, …"

This is from a BBC news report of about a week ago, about bullying, suffered by teachers:

One teacher told how he felt he was victimised after becoming a union representative.

In a BBC Radio Ulster interview he said: "At every turn the management were scrutinising me closer, overseeing me, questioning everything I decided to do and I got the impression I was being put under the microscope.

"Anxiety crept into my teaching. They came in and wanted to check up on everything, my plans, marking, and for the first time ever I was nervous going into a classroom environment."

"And that badly affected my home-life and my wife became ill with a stress-related illness."

Now I could have some fun with this, about how this teacher now knows what it's like being a pupil. "They … wanted to check up on everything, …", and so on. But Home Educating House Dad got there first, with his posting on the 24th. (Sorry, can't make his weird archiving software work yet, so scroll down.)

The House Dad also has comments on Britain's new Education Minister who has, sadly, replaced ex-Minister Estelle Morris. Whenever a Minister resigns, you think, great. But then a day later, along comes another. Why do Ministerial resignations have to be spoilt like this, with subsequent appointments?

Patrick, another one for the links section, please.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:00 AM
Category: Bullying
[0] [0]