Thursday, 10 December 2009

Children, the state, and social engineering

(Or "Some thoughts on compulsory education")

Via Longrider, I see that the "think tank" Demos has produced a report entitled Service Nation, arguing that a scheme of civic national service would be a good idea. They come out saying that that they don't think that it should be compulsory for all citizens to undertake a a civic service scheme at a certain point in their lives. However they do say "A lifecycle approach to service learning should begin with school, with compulsory service learning as part of the national curriculum." And they also say "If it is to work, the service must be universal. . . . That’s why our proposals run from the age of seven to adulthood, rather than a scheme for young adults." And they talk about the huge public benefits.

Seems pretty harmless, doesn't it? Though of course we need to remember that every time something is added to the national curriculum, something else that the school is doing with children has to go. And that, in itself, is sufficient reason to assume that this is a bad idea, unless it can be shown otherwise.

But I have another problem with this. It is basically about that it is all about the state deciding how children are to be brought up. And this is something I am highly uneasy about because the state increasingly feels that it has the right to say how children are brought up and what they are taught.

Once upon a time, it wasn't like that, of course. But in Victorian times, those with good intentions felt that it was not good enough just to make education available to families. They felt the need to go further. And so compulsory education in England and Wales (for children aged 5 to 10) was introduced by the 1880 Elementary Education Act.

Scotland, however, was well ahead, since the 1872 Education (Scotland) Act had already made education compulsory for all children aged 5 to 13. But the 1872 Act is interesting for another reason. It decreed that the existing parish and burgh schools should be taken over by the state and managed by locally elected School Boards. The Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland handed over their schools without charge to the School Boards. (Interestingly enough, the Roman Catholic Church and the Episcopal Church chose to not to.) In other words the 1872 act represents an important milestone in the growth of the power of the state. Not only did the state force parents to educate their children upon pain of punishment, but it also took control of most education in Scotland away from the voluntary / private sector.

In actual fact, the school boards that were set up by the 1872 Act were locally elected, so the element of state control was fairly limited. However, over the course of time, things changed. In 1918, these school boards were abolished and their powers were taken by local government, and this remains the case today.

There are two other ways in which the state can increase its control of education - and has done so. The most obvious is increasing interference in the classroom by central government - like the National Curriculum that was introduced by the Education Reform Act 1988, and the 5-14 curriculum in Scotland of the same era.

The other is to place limits on the two alternatives to state education: private schools and home education. For financial and practical reasons, these two alternatives are not actually open to most parents. Nonetheless, politicians are often uneasy about them. Germany bans home-schooling, and the Badman proposals make it likely that home education in Britain is going to become more difficult. And as for private schools, as recently as 1983, the Labour Party’s manifesto promised their virtual destruction:
Private schools are a major obstacle to a free and fair education system, able to serve the needs of the whole community. . . .We shall . . . withdraw charitable status from private schools and all their other public subsidies and tax privileges. We will also charge VAT on the fees paid to such schools; phase out fee charging; and integrate private schools within the local authority sector where necessary.
My contention is that both the compulsion of parents and increasing control of education by the state are wrong. The latter is a threat to freedom, the former is a breach of basic freedoms. Yes, increasing control of education by the state does lead to greater consistency between schools. And yes, compulsory education undoubtedly increases literacy rates. And yes, most parents have no problem with compulsory education and state control of education. But there are nonconformists. And they have a right to be respected.

And so let me finish this post by crossing the Atlantic to Ohio, and going back in history to 1922 with a tale of nonconformity. My source is A History of the Amish by Steven Nolt.

In 1921, the state of Ohio passed the Bing Act, requiring compulsory school attendance up to the age of 18. This was considered by the legislators to be a major social and educational advance, but the Amish community in Ohio wasn’t at all enthusiastic. The Amish believed that formal education should be basic, and in harmony the church and home, and that what was being taught to older children in state schools was not helpful for their children. When some Amish children did not turn up for classes, or refused to read some of the objectionable content in high school texts, the state stepped in. In January 1922, officials arrested five Amish fathers on charges of neglecting their children’s welfare. Most of the men’s school age children became wards of court. The authorities sent them to an orphanage and would not allow them to wear their Amish clothes.

Says it all really. “You are not bringing up your children in accordance of our newly passed law. Therefore you are not good parents, and we can take your children away from you, and take away their religious identity.” Isn't it funny the way that passing laws makes government officials behave in irrational ways?

1 comment:

Sally said...

Thanks for this post. It is a great timeline for our reference.