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Category Archive • Compulsion
January 21, 2005
"… you'll have to accept that your world view will be curtailed …"

I've had another busy day today, but I did manage to find this depressing news from Germany:

… A German school official has ordered seven families homeschooling their children in Northwest Germany to enroll their children in public schools immediately, or the children will be forcibly removed by police and taken to school. Any resistance on the part of the parents will result in the children being removed from their homes, according to a Home School Legal Defense Association report.

The families argued that, as Christians, they wanted to protect their children from the godless and humanistic values being taught in public schools. They also assured officials that they were providing an adequate education through a German correspondence school.

County education director Heinz Kohler dismissed the families' beliefs, stating, "you and your children are not living in isolation on some island but rather in an environment posing intra- and extracurricular situations where you'll have to accept that your world view will be curtailed."

Kohler further explained that homeschooling could not be allowed as "children should not be encapsulated or kept apart from the outside world. In these cases, the parents' rights to personally educate their children would prevent the children from growing up to be responsible individuals within society…"

You will be socialised!

I found this at an American anti-abortion site. Americans can contemplate this kind of thing with relative detachment, but here in Britain, for anyone who favours the right to homeschool, it is different. Homeschoolers here must have in the back of their minds the thought that the EU might one day decide to "harmonise" the rules about homeschooling, and something tells me they probably wouldn't harmonise them in such a way that Germans would be allowed to homeschool. Although, I suppose that there is always that hope.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:30 PM
Category: CompulsionHome education
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November 02, 2004
What you think about compulsion depends on what you remember about being subjected to it yourself

At school, I was a bad flute player, and for some stupid reason I found myself entered into a school music competition, playing a piece that was technically beyond me. Come the competition, I sloped despondently onto the platform, noted with relief that the large hall in which all this was happening was almost empty, and in a state of resignation began to play. To my amazement, I got it all right. Note perfect. That hideous passage that I had never once got right when practising went perfectly. Twice. Amazing.

Then the bad news. The bastards decided that I should repeat my performance in the school concert. For the school concert they cherry picked the music competitions, getting the best of the prize winners to reprise their various triumphs. A reasonable procedure. Trouble was, they decided to include my unrepeatable fluke in this showcase event.

I wish that I had point blank refused to play in that concert. Instead I buckled, and played, and duly messed the piece up, this time in front of five hundred schoolboys.

It actually wasn't really compulsion, because I could have refused. It was very heavy influence, emotional blackmail, dishonest argument and a blatant obsession with their interests (filling the slots in their damned concert) and a blatant disregard for my interests. But it wasn't compulsion, pure and simple. I could, as I say, have just said no. What they might then have said to me, I don't know, but I do not think they would have tortured me, in the way that for other acts of misbehaviour or defiance they did torture us. It was, you might say, impure compulsion.

Because it was compulsion, but because it was impure, I learned two things from this episode rather than just the one. I learned that I thought that compulsion of children is wrong. But I also learned that, had I really been thinking clearly, I could have resisted the compulsion.

I learned that children should be free, and also that, if they really choose to be, they are free.

Whenever I expound my views on the wrongness of compelling children to do things that they really, really don't want to do, someone in the compulsion team says: I remember being made to do … physics, basketball, sculpture, flute playing, whatever. At first I thought it was stupid, but I'm glad I was made to do it. Allowed to make my own decisions, I would have been a less well educated and well prepared adult. I would have done nothing. Hurrah for compulsion.

I can offer no simple and smart put-down of this kind of argument. But I am about to start pursuing a career as some sort of teacher, and if I can (probably a foolish fantasy but there you go), I will resist compulsion as a teaching method.

I will persuade. I will advise, urge, try to convince, try to sell the culture in general and the relevant bit (such as reading or sums) in particular, with all the eloquence and charm that I can muster. But the final decision about what my pupils do will be theirs, not mine.

Easy to say. But I wanted to record this ambition before reality starts to pollute it. As so often, my most important reader is myself, later.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:27 PM
Category: Compulsion
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October 14, 2004
No Child Allowed Home

WalterWilliama.jpgWalter Williams writing yesterday:

I'm wondering just when parents, especially poor minorities, will refuse to tolerate day-to-day school conditions that most parents wouldn't dream of tolerating. Lisa Snell, director of the Education and Child Welfare Program at the Los Angles-based Reason Foundation, has a recent article about school violence titled "No Way Out," in the October 2004 edition of Reason On Line (www.reason.com).

As Snell reports, Ashley Fernandez, a 12-year-old, attends Morgan Village Middle School, in Camden, N.J., a predominantly black and Hispanic school that has been designated as failing under state and federal standards for more than three years. Rotten education is not Ashley's only problem. When her gym teacher, exasperated by his unruly class, put all the girls in the boys' locker room, Ashley was assaulted. Two boys dragged her into the shower, held her down and fondled her for 10 minutes.

The school principal refused to even acknowledge the assault and denied her mother's request for a transfer to another school. Since the assault, Ashley has received numerous threats, and boys frequently grope her and run away. Put yourself in the place of Ashley's mother. The school won't protect her daughter from threats and assault. The school won't permit a transfer. What would you do? Ashley's mother began to keep her home. The response from officials: She received a court summons for allowing truancy.

Speaks for itself.

I found the picture of Walter Williams here, where there is further information about him.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:01 PM
Category: CompulsionViolence
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September 06, 2004
David Carr abolishes compulsory education

Just got an email, from someone who heard it, saying that when David Carr was on Radio 5 this evening – for the Libertarian Alliance - re the latest flap about obesity, smoking, and how the public is begging for more state controls and restrictions and illegalisation – and apparently DC said compulsory education should be done away with. Hurrah.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:34 PM
Category: Compulsion
[0] [0]
July 21, 2004
Education as punishment

Here is a reminder that sometimes "education" isn't quite as nice as it sounds:


The Chinese military surgeon who exposed the government's cover-up of the Sars crisis was released yesterday after seven weeks of "political re-education", his family said.

Jiang Yanyong, 72, a semi-retired general in the People's Liberation Army, had been detained at a secret location where he was forced to undergo daily study sessions aimed to make him renounce a critical letter he had written about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

I wonder exactly what lesson this man chose to learn from this dose of education, although maybe "detention" would be a better word for what he endured.

The lesson they were trying to teach him was don't make trouble.

A lot of the educational news concerning China is now quite good. This story is a salutary reminder that not all of it is.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:33 PM
Category: ChinaCompulsionPolitics
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June 17, 2004
Freedom teaches love – unfreedom teaches hatred

Why is adult life, when it is, better than the life of a child? For many adults it isn't, for the simple reason that when they were kids they didn't have to work that hard or struggle that hard, but as adults they do.

But for many adults, life is just massively better then it was when they were kids, and for them, I think that the reason for this is that when they were kids they had to do things they didn't like, and above they had to do things with certain other kids whom they did not like and who did not like them. Simply on happiness grounds, I think "streaming" into different types is a good thing. As an ex-nerd, I recall finding the jocks intimidating and scary. I'm sure the jocks found the nerds like me annoying, and perhaps intellectually intimidating. So why the hell were we forced into each others' company so relentlessly? Why couldn't the nerds have gone to a nerd-school, and the jocks to a jock-school? At the very least, could not the life of a one-regime-fits-all school at least have some slightly different regimes embedded within it? Insofar as the schools I went to did, I enjoyed them. Insofar as I was forced into jock-company and jocks were forced into my company, I would … rather have been somewhere else.

Occasionally, on holiday, I would blunder into some fragment of life where the company was totally congenial and appreciative of me, and where I immediately set about learning the rules of the place, so that I would fit in. Because I wanted to fit in. It was like going to heaven for a week, and it made me a massively better person, immediately. Then it would stop and I would have to go back to school. Then they let me out permanently, and I was allowed to search for places where everyone liked me and where I liked everyone, and where monster-jocks were polite visitors, and life got good and has stayed good ever since.

I know why I was supposed to endure the monster-jocks, and why they were supposed to endure me. That is to say, I know the words people use to excuse this absurdity. Spending time with uncongenial people whom you hate and who hate you is "good for you". You learn to understand other points of view, other attitudes.

No you don't. You learn to hate other points of view and to hate other attitudes. You love what you are allowed freely to acquaint yourself with, dipping into it, and venturing further if you fancy it. That's how you learn to love. I'll say it again because it is so important. Forcing people into each others' company who do not appreciate each others' company teaches not love, or respect, or toleration, or even merely silent politeness; it teaches hatred.

All of which was intended to be a mere preamble to a comment on and link to this, this being a BBC report about how having special jock schools can make jocks less nasty and less unhappy.

I knew that.

Specialist sports colleges could help tackle anti-social behaviour among teenage boys, a report suggests.

The study found boys were more likely than girls to raise their sense of self-worth through specialist sports colleges.
The research by Northumbria University found sports college pupils' confidence was significantly higher than those at a comprehensive school.

They were also more confident about their physical appearance.

Specialist schools are state schools which follow the mainstream curriculum, but have a particular emphasis and expertise in an area, such as technology, science, languages or sports.

The majority of secondary schools in England now have specialist status.

Good. In fact I would go as far as to say that this could be a major improvement in British education that has happened in the last fifteen years or so, to set beside the way that primary school education in the 3Rs etc. has recently changed from being mostly of a derangingly despicable incompetence to being patchily adequate.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:18 AM
Category: CompulsionPrimary schoolsSport
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June 09, 2004
When not drugging your kid is child abuse

This is mind-boggling. Like RC Dean, I hardly know where to begin, so I won't. Suffice it to say that, at any rate in some parts of the USA, you are now, as a parent, expected to boggle the mind of your offspring.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:45 PM
Category: CompulsionParents and children
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May 20, 2004
Now hear this!

When the usual suspects orate about how the internet is going to "revolutionise" education, I am interested, but it usually turns out to be an exaggeration. Some promising and/or worthwhile stuff is being suggested or offer, but the world is not going to be transformed. But when the US Navy says things like this, I find myself being more impressed.

I think that the reason for the contrast between these two reactions is that the US Navy, unlike civilian educational organisations, makes a point of dishing out orders to people, and of being obeyed. Not orders to everyone, of course, but to a lot of people. "Now hear this!", as they say over their ship's loudspeakers. (They do in the movies anyway.)

NavalMedical.jpgSo, when US Naval officers announce that naval medical education is going to be revolutionised by being made available on line, there is an air of "whether you like it or not" about this pronouncement that is absent when civilians talk about revolutionising things.

This last stricture does not apply to actual revolutionaries. They cannot yet give orders but they mostly intend to. Civilian educators, on the whole, disbelieve in giving orders. They believe in things like arousing enthusiasm, and in attracting attention with pretty little pictures. They believe in "engagement". They believe in the voluntary principle.

The US navy believes in pretty little pictures also, as the particular pretty little picture that I have used to decorate this posting illustrates. But read what it says. It says: "Naval Medical Education and Training Command." Command. Civilian educators don't like to use words like "command" these days.

Personally, I think that the civilian educators are a lot more right than wrong. But I further believe that following the logic of not using the word "command" will have revolutionary consequences, and that a lot of these same civilian educators are liable to end up as revolutionees.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:51 PM
Category: Compulsion
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May 18, 2004
David Carr (and me) on drug abuse

David Carr writes at Samizdata about the use of sniffer dogs in schools, and wonders why there is so much less fuss about that than about prisoner abuse in Iraq, i.e. he disapproves.

Me, I think that if you favour compulsory schooling, you have to accept that (a) schools are then prisons, and that (b) since you get drug abuse in prisons, you are also liable to get it in schools, and that meanwhile (c) a school where drug abuse is controlled is probably better than one where it isn't.

In the longer term, I believe that the "answer" to children abusing drugs is to rearrange the immediate incentive structure that the average school-child now faces. If more children made a more immediate contribution to the world, and got immediate rewards for doing so, and hence more immediate punishments for not making such a contribution, then drug abuse, which would not be rewarded and would be punished, might diminish, although it would never completely go away.

Note that I do believe that there is such a thing as "drug abuse". I do believe that marijuana, to take a favourite example of the pro-drugs enthusiasts, is potentially a quite harmful drug. I do not regard this as inconsistent with favouring the legalisation of all drugs. Drugs are dangerous, but only directly dangerous to those who take them. The harm that drug abusers do to themselves shouldn't be a criminal matter, any more than the harm done by alcohol abusers should, in itself, be a crime. The crimes that abusers commit as a result of their abuse should, on the other hand, be treated as the crimes that they are.

And while we're talking about crime, I think that the age of criminal responsibility, as of economic and political emancipation, should now be lowered, to the beginning of teenagerdom. Votes at thirteen. Criminalisation for crimes at thirteen, no compulsory schooling from thirteen onwards, etc..

Children are powerful, as soon as they want to be (i.e. as soon as they become "teenagers"), and no good comes from attempting to sustain a political regime based on unreality, or on such irrelevancies as the fact that many children of that age are stupid. So are many adults, but that doesn't mean that stupid adults get locked up in schools indefinitely and searched by sniffer dogs for the drugs that they would then also drugs in huge quantities.

There is another posting here about how the market educates, plus yet another about how modern technology empowers children. Expect these Real Soon Now.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:36 PM
Category: Compulsion
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April 14, 2004
Who runs the prisons?

Sometimes I envy the old-fashioned authoritarians. I really do. They are so certain, so sure, so confident. And at their best, they write so well:

Forcing every child to re-invent the wheel turned out to involve a heavy price in illiteracy, innumeracy and the inevitable frustration that went with these disadvantages. But what mattered was the principle of anti-authoritarianism.

For a teacher to enforce standards of social behaviour, not to mention grammar and spelling, was a form of cultural imperialism: an imposition of "middle-class" values on pupils whose own communities lived by very different rules. (And those communities - however delinquent or feckless - were never to be judged or condemned, just as their dialects - however sub-literate or socially incapacitating - were never to be corrected.)

Now the teachers' leaders, who defended this pernicious ideology with relentless fervour against Thatcherite ministers, have the jaw-dropping effrontery to blame its consequences on the very government that tried to curb it.

The president of the NAS/UWT, Pat Lerew, is absolutely right to say that the bullying, anti-social behaviour of today's children is a result of their parents having grown up with "little respect for teachers and others in authority". But they did not learn that disrespect at Thatcher's knee. They learnt it from their teachers - in the classrooms of the 1980s, which were self-consciously dedicated to the idea that no authority figure was worthy of automatic deference, that no rule should go unquestioned and that no goal was worth pursuing except the narcissistic one of "personal self-fulfilment".

This is Janet Daley, commenting on the NUT Conference I have already referred to.

… Now the current generation of teachers - who are far less ideologically driven than their predecessors - are paying the price for that regime of anti-discipline, anti-authority and anti-structure. There is a generation of parents who well and truly learnt the lessons they were taught in school.

Daley says the prisons should be run by the warders, and that Lerew and her cohorts have merely allowed the prisons to be run by the prisoners, and so far as that critique goes, I agree. If I have to choose only between Daley-ism and Lerew-ism, I choose Daley-ism. But in common with the progressives of an earlier time, whom Lerew still goes through the motions of echoing, I want to believe that there are better ways to do things.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:44 PM
Category: Compulsion
[0] [0]
February 09, 2004
The government is bringing back apprenticeships

I know it's a government initiative, but this has got to be a step in the right direction, for the British economy, and for education:

Thousands of children from the age of 14 are to be offered apprenticeships, allowing them to leave the classroom and learn a trade.

Ministers are to announce a new "junior apprenticeship" scheme next month under which 14 to 16-year-olds can spend two days a week at work, one day at college and two days in school. They will learn on the job from skilled workers such as plumbers, joiners, electricians and IT operators.

A briefing note by the Department for Education and Skills says that thousands of 14 and 15-year-olds will be given the opportunity to go out to work as part of the scheme.

The scheme is seen as part of an attempt to plug the skills gap in the United Kingdom that has left industry short of skilled workers. Employers say that one in ten employees are "incompetent". Ministers believe the scheme will also help combat truancy.

For once I agree with those "Ministers". Anything which widens the available options for bored teenagers yearning to be free has to be a good thing.

Which doesn't mean the government won't find a way to balls it up. But despite that obvious prejudice, I'm still glad that our rulers are thinking along these lines. After all, the lives of the kids who give this a try are already totally nationalised, so it's hard to see how this could make things any worse. I know, I know, they'll find a way. But I still say: good luck and I hope it works.

Some teachers, naturally, are worried.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:41 PM
Category: CompulsionRelevance
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December 09, 2003
Sprinkling in the Gus Van Sant to get your article against school compulsion published in the NYT

Joanne Jacobs has more comment on that NYT piece by Emily White about e-schooling which I also linked to on Sunday.

Commenting on this kind of thing:

Yet it is also true that there is a beauty in high school: those long, exhausting hours full of other kids, everyone trying to interpret one another. It's a beauty that Gus Van Sant evokes in his new Columbine-inspired film, ''Elephant'' -- kids break dancing and taking pictures and making out, even as the school day is headed for darkness.

... JJ says:

Some students like the social interaction of school; others can't handle it or prefer not to or go to schools where the danger is too dangerous to be beautiful.

I see why I've been unable to break into the New York Times Magazine. I lack the right mentality.

Quite so. When I read those bits about Gus Van Sant I thought, yes, Emily White has indeed got the right mentality that you need to smuggle anti-school-compulsion anti-government-meddling stuff into the New York Times, and good on her. You nod towards matters artistic, of the sort that Middle America wouldn't have heard of or wouldn't approve of if it did hear of them, but concede nothing of substance.

It's true. Many kids do enjoy their schools. So admit it, and let that be the bit where you sprinkle on a dash of Gus Van Sant, and making sure also to splash in the word "Columbine" itself, which as we all know is an issue which proves beyond doubt that everyone in the world should vote Democrat and read the New York Times every day for ever. It could well be that those very paragraphs clinched it for this article getting published by the NYT.

(Actually, Columbine is the case against compulsory schooling and government meddling in hundred foot high flaming letters, in about five distinct ways, but simply to mention Columbine is to score NYT brownie points. We're talking about a conditioned editorial reflex here, not a conscious thought process.)

But, as Joanne Jacobs agrees, what White's article actually says is that many kids don't like regular schooling, and that if that's so they shouldn't have to submit to it, and they don't have to submit to it.

I wonder what Gus Van Sant thinks about that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:01 PM
Category: CompulsionPolitics
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November 27, 2003
Winston Churchill encounters the First Declension: "But what does it mean?"

This is one of the most famous passages in the whole of My Early Life. Generations of expensively educated British schoolboys, me most definitely included, can remember precisely the feelings described:

When the last sound of my mother's departing wheels had died away, the Headmaster invited me to hand over any money I had in my possession. I produced my three half-crowns,; which were duly entered in a book, and I was told that, from time to time there would be a "shop" at the school with all sorts of things which one would like to have, and that I could choose what I liked up to the limit of the seven and sixpence. Then we quitted the Headmaster's parlour and the comfortable private side of the house/and entered the more bleak apartments reserved for the instruction and accommodation of the pupils. I was taken into a Form Room and told to sit at a desk. All the other boys were out of doors, and I was alone with the Form Master. He produced a thin greeny-brown covered book filled with words in different types of print.

"You have never done any Latin before, have you?" he said.

" No, sir."

"This is a Latin grammar." He opened it at a well-thumbed page. " You must learn this," he said, pointing to a number of words in a frame of lines. " I will come back in half an hour and see what you know."

Behold me then on a gloomy evening, with an aching heart, seated in front of the First Declension.

         Mensa   -  a table
         Mensa   -   O table
         Mensam   -   a table
         Mensae   -   of a table
         Mensae   -   to or for a table
         Mensa   -   by, with or from a table

What on earth did it mean? Where was the sense in it? It seemed absolute rigmarole to me. However, there was one thing I could always do: I could learn by heart. And I thereupon proceeded, as far as my private sorrows would allow, to memorize the acrostic-looking task which had been set me.

In due course the Master returned.

"Have you learnt it?" he asked.

"I think I can say it, sir," I replied; and I gabbled it off.

He seemed so satisfied with this that I was emboldened to ask a question.

"What does it mean, sir?"

"It means what it says. Mensa, a table. Mensa is a noun of the First Declension. There are five declensions. You have learnt the singular of the First Declension."

"But," I repeated," what does it mean?"

"Mensa means a table," he answered.

"Then why does mensa also mean O table," I enquired, "and what does O table mean?"

"Mensa, O table, is the vocative case," he replied.

"But why O table?" I persisted in genuine curiosity.

"O table – you would use that in addressing a table, in invoking a table." And then seeing he was not carrying me with him, "You would use it in speaking to a table."

"But I never do," I blurted out in honest amazement.

"If you are impertinent, you will be punished, and punished, let me tell you, very severely," was his conclusive rejoinder.

Such was my first introduction to the classics from which, I have been told, many of our cleverest men have derived so much solace and profit.

You can see how this would become such a popular piece of writing. It appeals to two distinct constituencies. There are those who endured, but in the end accepted all this rigmarole. "But you know, looking back on it, I'm glad they made me do it ..." The Trad Tendency, in other words.

And then there are those endured but who, then or later, rebelled, and stayed rebelled, so to speak, and became supporters of the Progressive Tendency in education. Children, said the Progs, shouldn't be made to learn things they can't get the meaning of. And the fact that it is Winston Churchill, no less, now installed in national folk memory as the ultimate arch-Traditionalist, who is saying all this, makes it pack an enormous propaganda punch. Ivan Illich or John Holt saying such things doesn't count for a tenth as much.

There'll be more from Winston Churchill in a similar vein in a future posting.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:05 PM
Category: Compulsion
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November 26, 2003
Watch out for a woods initiative

There's a charming article in today's Telegraph about a school that decided it needed a wood next to it:

When the school was built in a residential area of the town in the 1970s, it had a tarmac playground and a games field, which is how they still build schools today. "All the children could do at playtime was racket around, which resulted in bumps and bruises and poor behaviour," says Ruth Lippitt, who has taught here for 25 years. "Some couldn't deal with open spaces without getting into trouble."

Concerned about behaviour at playtimes, she contacted Brian Stoker, an education adviser for Cheshire County Council with a daisy-fresh approach to how children relate to space in playgrounds. She took his advice; parts of the grounds were imaginatively re-landscaped and a redundant patch of ground near the carpark was earmarked for a wood. Each of the 200 pupils and staff planted a 1ft whip, or young tree, as well as eight more established "standards" to give them an idea of how it would look in the future.

Read it all. It's fascinating.

But even before that bit, there was potentially grim news:

An Ofsted inspector described the woods at Lunts Heath Primary School in Widnes, Cheshire, as an "area for calm and reflection".

Ofsted likes it. So what's wrong with that?

What's wrong is that, instead of being inspired to take a look at what Ruth Lippitt has achieved in Cheshire, and learn from it if they can, and if they can fit it in around all the other things they're doing, teachers all over Britain will, I fear, in due course be "encouraged" to duplicate this experience. Perhaps partly because of this article, London will mull over what's been going on in this Cheshire school and decide to include it in its ever lengthening list of "best practices", and then try to impose it everywhere. Queue another initiative, and more forms to fill in, and in this particular matter, outbursts of titanic rage from teachers whose problem is that the kids in their charge are perfectly happy and well-behaved, but would benefit (in the teacher's judgement) from learning another language. But no. London ordains that the foreign language money that they've managed to scrape together by shaving bits off other budgets must instead be spent on bloody trees.

I'm not against trees. If you think that you've entirely missed my point. My point is that judgements about policy need to be made by those who are going to make them happen.

Anyone who has ever done anything in life, and that's most of us, knows that good things don't just happen, as the result of a one-off decision that they shall. They have to be backed enthusiastically, by people who are determined to make them happen and happen well. More precisely, they need one person who wants to make it work and is determined to make it work. The difference between doing something because you want to, see the point of it, and are determined to make it do what you want, and just going through the motions because some boring ass in authority over you has told you to do it, is all the difference.

This principle doesn't just apply to weird and wonderful things like planting a wood next to your school. It applies to everything. To understanding this distinction is to understand an awful lot that is wrong (but also a good lot that is right) about education in Britain today.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:24 PM
Category: Compulsion
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November 25, 2003
The education of Young Winston begins

Winston Churchill wrote copiously all his life, and in 1930 My Early Life was published. Here's how Churchill's "education" got started:

It was at "The Little Lodge" I was first menaced with Education. The approach of a sinister figure described as "the Governess" was announced. Her arrival was fixed for a certain day. In order to prepare for this day Mrs. Everest produced a book called Reading Without Tears. It certainly did not justify its title in my case. I was made aware that before the Governess arrived I must be able to read without tears. We toiled each day. My nurse pointed with a pen at the different letters. I thought it all very tiresome. Our preparations were by no means completed when the fateful hour struck and the Governess was due to arrive. I did what so many oppressed peoples have done in similar circumstances: I took to the woods. I hid in the extensive shrubberies – forests they seemed – which surrounded "The Little Lodge." Hours passed before I was retrieved and handed over to "the Governess." We continued to toil every day, not only at letters but at words, and also at what was much worse, figures. Letters after all had only got to be known, and when they stood together in a certain way one recognised their formation and that it meant a certain sound or word which one uttered when pressed sufficiently. But the figures were tied into all sorts of tangles and did things to one another which it was extremely difficult to forecast with complete accuracy. You had to say what they did each time they were tied up together, and the Governess apparently attached enormous importance to the answer being exact. If it was not right it was wrong. It was not any use being "nearly right." In some cases these figures got into debt with one another: you had to borrow one or carry one, and afterwards you had to pay back the one you had borrowed. These complications cast a steadily gathering shadow over my daily life. They took one away from all the interesting things one wanted to do in the nursery or in the garden. They made increasing inroads upon one's leisure. One could hardly get time to do any of the things one wanted to do. They became a general worry and preoccupation. More especially was this true when we descended into a dismal bog called "sums." There appeared to be no limit to these. When one sum was done, there was always another. Just as soon as I managed to tackle a particular class of these afflictions, some other much more variegated type was thrust upon me.

That last stuff could, on the face of it, come straight out of John Holt's How Children Fail, especially the point about how the reward for doing a sum is … a harder sum.

But what Churchill is really doing here is siding ironically with the adult world, and against his juvenile self. That's how he felt, but he was wrong, he is now saying. He accurately describes how small children such as he was feel about being made to learn things, when they are at the same time eager to be learning other things instead. But he takes it for granted that such children nevertheless must be made to do their sums and their letters and their words. Churchill as a child wanted freedom, but Churchill the adult takes it for granted that Churchill child had to be over-ruled, at whatever cost in bewilderment or hurt feelings.

Churchill understood the urge for freedom. He did a lot to protect it, of course. But he was very firm about what had to be its limits.

To me, depressing.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:58 PM
Category: Compulsion
[3] [0]
November 19, 2003
Truancy – legalise the lot

The lefty schoolchildren of Britain are playing truant to demonstrate against George W. Bush, and the government is on the case. (I wonder. Would they be so severe on demonstrations that the Prime Minister was in favour of? No need to answer that.) If that's what it takes for teenagers to grasp how silly compulsory education is, then I'm for it.

The government today launched the latest wave of anti-truancy sweeps of town centres and shopping arcades - as speculation mounted that some children will bunk off school to protest against the visit of US president George Bush.

Teams of police and education welfare officers will patrol known truancy hot spots in England over the next three weeks in the fourth such nationwide operation, said young people's minister Ivan Lewis.

Figures from the last national sweep in May showed police caught 5,182 truants, 2,194 of whom were in the company of an adult.

In the previous operation last December, 7,341 children who should have been in school were stopped, 3,645 of whom were with a parent.

Mr Lewis said: "The message could not be clearer - school attendance matters. Truancy is a passport to a life blighted by wasted opportunities, unemployment and even crime.

Well if you make truancy into a crime, it isn't that surprising that it leads to … crime. But if "truancy" was legalised, it would surely do far less damage, and stop being a gateway crime to real crimes. By making truancy illegal, you put those who do it beyond the protection of the law, and thus make the process far worse.

Legalise all truancy. Not just soft truancy like taking a day off for a demo that your mother will be at as well. No, legalise the lot. I know it sounds terrible, but really, it would be better.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:29 PM
Category: Compulsion
[3] [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.


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]
November 10, 2003

From John Clare's most recent Telegraph readers' questions answered column:

Why can't schools be left to choose their own pupils? What need is there for busy-body local education authorities, admissions forums and appeals panels to intervene?

According to Philip Hunter, who glories in the title of "chief schools adjudicator", the answer is as follows: "Where a school can choose children, it will, left to its own devices, inexorably drift towards choosing posh children. Teachers would rather deal with nice children who have done their homework, and parents would prefer to send their children to schools that cater for children with similar backgrounds. The result is high-performing schools in posh areas and less well-performing schools in deprived areas." If nothing else, you have to admire the brutal clarity of the argument. The notion that schools can be improved so that all are equally attractive is "pie in the sky for the present", Mr Hunter adds.

I reckon he's right about the "pie in the sky" bit, and not just "for the present" either.

His solution? Parents must learn to accept that the bureaucrat who dispatches their child to a poor-performing, unpopular school knows best.

Mr Hunter is the Fixed Quantity of Education Fallacy personified. Yes, posh schools would get posher, if all were allowed to choose. But can he not see that the unposh schools would face pressures on them to get posher too? Especially if people were allowed to take a crack at setting up posh schools for the unposh, so to speak. Mr Hunter seems to think that posh kids have a fixed quantity of educational virtue attached to them, which shines out on its surroundings, uplifting all in their vicinity, and the only question is: who gets to bask in the light? And the unposh kids will automatically be illuminated, no matter what the other influences of their immediate surroundings. But what if the unposh kids extinguish the lights in their midst rather than passively allowing themselves to be illuminated?

What, in other words, if his rearrangements reduce the total amount of illumination? What if the arrangements he forbids would greatly increase it?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:08 PM
Category: Compulsion
[0] [0]
October 15, 2003
Zero tolerance madness

Often when there are reports about a kid being expelled from school for a year for saying boo!! to a teacher, or some such non-mega crime, I hesitate to join the chorus of derision, because this could be and probably was merely the final straw in a vast hay-rick of indiscipline, and because in any case I favour the right of institutions to expel people irrationally on the same basis that I favour the right of people to leave an institution irrationally. It's called Freedom of Association, and I think that the principle of Freedom of Association should apply just as definitely to education and schooling and so on as it does to sports events or art exhibitions or the comments sections of bossy blogs such as this one reserves the right to be (in case you were wondering). If you don't want to be involved, you shouldn't have to be, and if the owners of the thing don't want you in or on their property, they should be able to expel you. If you think that makes them bastards, well then, why are you so keen to go on associating with them?

All of which is an unwieldy preamble to what really does look like a piece of official idiocy, which really should be jeered at by the entire interested blogosphere, unless compelling evidence later emerges to the contrary. Here's the story from Yahoo:

A teenager was disciplined for sharing medication used to treat asthma, but he said it saved his girlfriend's life, News2Houston reported Wednesday.

Andra Ferguson and her boyfriend, Brandon Kivi, both 15, use the same type of asthma medicine, Albuterol Inhalation Aerosol.

Ferguson said she forgot to bring her medication to their school, Caney Creek High School, on Sept. 24. When she had trouble breathing, she went to the nurse's office.

Out of concern, Kivi let her use his inhaler.

"I was trying to save her life. I didn't want her to die on me right there because the nurse's office (doesn't) have breathing machines," Kivi said.

"It made a big difference. It did save my life. It was a Good Samaritan act," Ferguson said.

But the school nurse said it was a violation of the district's no-tolerance drug policy, and reported Kivi to the campus police.

The next day, he was arrested and accused of delivering a dangerous drug. Kivi was also suspended from school for three days. He could face expulsion and sent to juvenile detention on juvenile drug charges.

My thanks to Dale Amon for alerting by email me to this seemingly quite mad story. He came across it in James Taranto last week. (While your at Taranto's, take a look at his next story also.) Even from across the Atlantic, this really does look like, in Dale's words, "one for the home schoolers". I'm sure I'm not the only one saying this.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:55 PM
Category: Compulsion
[6] [0]
October 09, 2003
Natalie Solent on un-Macchiavellian education

Natalie Solent was kind enough to link to this piece here. I return the complement, as I fear that links from Blogger do not flag themselves up here automatically. Sample paragraph from Natalie's piece, about education in Poland. It used to be different under Communism, but …:

Nowadays it's different, but education bureaucrats design their systems as if they still have savage force to back them up. Poland's education system, like our own, is one of ineffective compulsion. It was said (I think by Macchiavelli but I can't find the quote) that there is nothing so dangerous as to harm a man enough to make him hate you, yet leave him the strength to get his revenge. That is exactly what imprisoning young men in school does.


There are other things at Natalie's which I also like. I've stolen one posting in its entirety and put it up at my other place.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:51 PM
Category: Compulsion
[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]
January 23, 2003
Theory X versus Theory Y – a dose of reality

Friedrich Bowhard put up an outstandingly interesting piece yesterday, about a second-career maths teacher trying to make sense of the mismatch between what they teach teachers to do, and what teachers do do.

It's a classic illustration of the folly of trying to apply Theory Y thinking (see the post immediately below this one, here) to an institution that is still run on Theory X lines. The pupils have to attend, and have to be in class whether they want to be there or not, and must be badgered into learning whether they want to learn what they're being taught or not. At least in a factory that aspires to become Theory Y people are being paid to be there, and agree to be there even if they don't always like it much. But this school is for many of its inmates only a very thinly disguised prison. Theory Y can't work in a place run that way.

Friedrich's teacher is especially good on the nuances of desk arrangement, and of the "discovery" method as applied to the learning of maths. (I intend to say a lot more about that, you may depend upon it.)

As is always the case with such mismatches between the philosophy being aspired to and organisational reality, the only time when things work properly is outside the official timetable periods. The teacher has to do things in a Theory X way during classes if all hell is not to break loose, but he also runs an unofficial lunch-hour period (attendance strictly voluntary) where a Theory Y atmosphere really starts to take hold.

This reminded me of a story told by Waterman (again see below) about a starting-out young factory manager who came to realise that the only time the factory he had been put in charge of worked properly was at the weekend. Why? Because at the weekend, he didn't "manage" it (in a Theory X way). It managed itself (in a Theory Y way). And of course it managed much better.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:08 PM
Category: Compulsion
[1] [0]
January 22, 2003
Theory X – Theory Y

One of the great managerial fashions of the eighties was the book In Search of Excellence, which was about how to get companies to do well and make lots of money, by doing a bit more than just make money. The "senior" author was Tom Peters, whom it is now as unfashionable to admire as it was once fashionable. I still quite admire the man, and believe that his triviality as a thinker and writer about management is now exaggerated. But I have also enjoyed reading stuff by the "other" writer of In Search of Excellence, Robert H. Waterman Jnr., who is a more calm and down-to-earth sort of a character, and who is now growing old rather more gracefully. So when I saw a later book by him in my local Oxfam shop on sale at £3 I gave it a go. And indeed, it is quite good.

One of the core concepts of books like these (this one is called The Frontiers of Excellence – well, it had to be called something) is the contrast between Theory X management and Theory Y management. Waterman recycles this concept yet again, and this is the version of it that he offers:

This is Theory X:

Most of us have an inherent dislike of work and will avoid it if at all possible.

We need to be directed, want to avoid responsibility, have relatively little ambition, and want security above all.

We need, therefore, to be coerced, controlled, directed, and threatened with punishment if we're to put forward adequate effort.

And this is Theory Y:

Putting forth physical and mental effort in work is as natural as play or rest.

Most humans don't inherently dislike work, though they are often placed in jobs that give them plenty of cause for unhappiness.

External control and threat of punishment are not the only means of getting us to work.

Commitment to objectives is directly related to the rewards attached to achieving those objectives; the most important reward: satisfaction of our own ego needs.

Under favourable conditions most of us learn not only to accept, but to seek, responsibility.

The capacity to enact a fairly high degree of imagination, ingenuity, and creativity is widely, not narrowly, distributed in the population.

All of this was first spelt out to the big wide world by Douglas McGregor in his book The Human Side of Enterprise in 1960, and notions like these had been doing the rounds in management theory circles since at least World War 2, not least as a result of the productivity miracles that had been lucked into by America during that same war. The men who would normally have been bossing them around being absent fighting the war, American simply had to trust the most unpromising looking and most second class of their citizens (such as women and negroes) to get the industrial job done, and – surprise, surprise – they did it.

Do I have to spell out how this Theory X/Theory Y contrast applies to education, and to our assumptions about the nature of childhood motivations? Surely not.

That's it, that's this posting, pretty much finished. But I'll just add one big point in a very few more words. It's one thing to accept the truth of Theory Y; quite another to apply it successfully, and without creating new and improved versions of Theory X torments for your underlings. And it is especially difficult to apply it in circumstances where Theory X has been ruling the roost without apology for the previous few decades, as Robert Waterman makes very clear. Which might explain why many and probably most schools nowadays are no nearer to doing Theory Y than they were half a century ago. Nevertheless, as a statement of the sort of world that a lot us now want for children, for the way they work and the way they learn, it still does very nicely, I think.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:33 AM
Category: Compulsion
[0] [0]
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
[4] [1]
December 18, 2002
The right to compulsory education in India

Cards on the table. This is a holding post, to make sure that something goes up on December 18th, in case I don't manage anything more substantial later, during the real day itself, so to speak, during which I will be very busy.

My text and link is from and to the Hindu Times, who report on a "right" which is to be forced upon the children of India which, so goes the plan, they will have no right to resist:

New Delhi, Dec. 16. (UNI): Education for children between 6-14 years of age has become a fundamental right under the Constitution of India.

The President has given his assent to the Constitution (93rd Amendment) Bill, 2002, to this effect and the same has since been notified in the Gazette, an official press note said today.

Article 21 of the Constitution providing for fundamental right to life and personal liberty has been amended to make education up to high school a fundamental right for all citizens of India.

This amendment will be enforced from a date to be notified by the Department of Education in the Ministry of Human Resource Development.

All State governments and Union Territory administrations, will, thereafter make arrangements for compulsory education for all children throughout the country to herald India's march to hundred per cent literacy of its citizens.

It is depressing to read a report in which a right is to be enforced upon those who are supposedly to have it, without any sense that a contradiction of any sort might be involved.

And the report is also depressing because India is now one of the countries where truly voluntary education is spreading very fast. I suppose it was too good to last. Making education compulsory will corrupt it, and corrupt the "private sector" suppliers who will doubtless now be queueing up to supply the slighly less bad bits of this "service", as well as the utter rubbish product that will actually be paid for by the government.

I wonder if part of this story is that the current strongly Hindu nationalist Indian government doesn't want the Muslims of India to control their own education as much as some of them are controlling it now. Because whenever a government says that something is compulsory, they get to describe what that thing is. Maybe there are Indians or expert India watchers out there who can elucidate. Mixing religion, politics and education can result in some very hot dishes.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:21 AM
Category: Compulsion
[0] [0]
November 18, 2002
Good prison versus bad liberation?

As a would-be radical child liberationist, postings like this one by Joanne Jacobs pull me apart like chewing gum being stretched out by a chewing gum chewer. Am I appalled at what my friend Alice would denounce as the "manipulation" of it all, or am I impressed at the sheer drive and efficiency of the stuff that Joanne is holding up for our admiration? (It's the usual stuff. High expectations. High academic standards. Frequent tests. Usually inept minorities making rapid progress. The kids also being "stretched".)

Both, in truth. I think that the arguments for freedom for adults do apply to children, even though children are indeed different. (Adults are also different, etc. etc.) But although I wouldn't want to be one of these efficient prison officer educators myself, I am impressed at how the best of these people go about their business. If you are going to be sent to prison for the crime of being young, it's probably better to be imprisoned in world that prepares you somewhat for life after your stretch inside than to be imprisoned in a place that prepares you to do nothing except whine and complain that you aren't being looked after and entertained properly by the big bad mysterious world that your plasticene games and dance and drama classes and yoof culture rebellions have so completely not prepared you for. I guess to the hardcore child liberationists, I must sound like a "progressive" Southern plantation owner, agonising about whether the slaves can handle freedom.

And here's another concession to the lock-em-up and smarten-em-up school of schoolers. Chucking the kids out into the streets as the streets now are wouldn't be ideal either, now would it? As so often, getting from here to there means choosing your next few steps with care.

Actually, I don't think that the changes needed can come from the official system at all. I think it goes to the state of mind of the consumer/victims of it all. Do these people – parents and children (especially children) - decide that they're consumers, or that they're victims? That's what matters. Expect a lot more from me about this last bit.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:26 AM
Category: Compulsion
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