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The 11-year sentence;Platform;Opinion

Legally-enforced education suits everyone but the child made to attend a bad school. Andrew Rowe MP argues that it's time we started thinking of imaginative alternatives

AS THE CONTROVERSY over truants gathers pace, one issue is never raised. Why is education compulsory? Apart from the handful of parents who negotiate education at home for their children, compulsory education means compulsory school. For millions of UK citizens attendance at school is enforced by law. No other group, unless they are condemned by a court or sectioned under the Mental Health legislation, can be forced to attend somewhere against their will. And not just for a week or two. This criminal sanction lasts a minimum of 11 years and demands about 45,000 hours of every child's life. Now we have a Government plan to make enforcement of this compulsion even more effective.

Why? If school is such an obvious good, does it have to be backed by these draconian penalties? As the evidence of drug-selling, bullying in the playground and overwhelmed teachers mounts, should we not be questioning this right to force unwilling children into school? Should we be using the law to compel children and young people to go to a place where they may well suffer both physical and psychological abuse, be exposed to pressures which could turn them into addicts for life and be bored out of their minds? If education is all that it's cracked up to be, will it not prove attractive without the force of law? OFSTED report after OFSTED report tells us that in classes where the teacher can keep the children interested and they feel they are using their time profitably truancy is not a problem. In other words, the law is necessary, not to ensure that children attend schools which do them good, but only schools which are manifestly doing them harm.

The law began as a paternalist measure of protection. Without legally enforced school attendance, children were often forced into slave labour in unsafe and insanitary conditions. Protection against exploitation will always be needed, but the real reason why so few people complain against legally enforced schooling is that it suits everyone except the pupil made to attend a bad school. It suits parents, because otherwise they might have to take an interest in their local school, and where else would they find such cheap child-minding? It suits politicians because they can claim gratifyingly high figures of school attendance and run away from the difficult questions of whether they represent an effective investment for either child or state. It suits teachers (though perhaps less than it did) because they don't have to ensure that what they teach attracts children; they are there anyway. It even attracts many children for whom any structure to their day is better than none and belonging to some defined group is better than having to create a group of their own.

The time has come to look at this again. The Gadarene rush to longer and longer years in school derives at least as much from the growth of desire among parents to shed responsibility for their children on to others as to any demonstrable educational benefit. (Why, for example, does it take almost two years longer for an average child to to read than it did 20 years ago?) If it were easier for parents to spend more time at home with their young children, the movement for ever-extended nursery provision would falter. There is some evidence that for many children the semi-formal partnership between parents and toddler groups, for example, works better than more formal nursery education. Yet that is now being undermined by primary schools vying to meet the twin demands of parents anxious to earn a living and their own anxiety to lay as early a claim as possible on the loyalties (and therefore the capitation) of pupils.

I do not pretend that, especially for older pupils, there isn't an important issue of social control. School is quite a cheap way of keeping young people off the streets. What I do question is whether there is any longer anything to be gained by concealing from ourselves that, for a growing number of young people, it is social control rather than education that drives policy. I don't believe that it is fair to teachers or to children to distort schooling to keep them off the streets. Other solutions should be found, otherwise the number of teachers giving up their profession due to stress and the number of children being damaged for life will surely grow.

It is not impossible to envisage alternatives to enforced school. Pupils old enough to make a judgment could be given a choice of activities, of which school would be one. They could be required to sign an agreement that, for a defined period of time, they would undertake a particular activity which would be run by approved organisers and paid for out of the capitation fee that would otherwise go to the school. The existence of, for example, specialist providers of skills training in sport, maths or computer design, carpentry or music might allow some of the children who currently achieve nothing in our school system to find some self-confidence. They could then return to school better able to master some of the other basic subjects in which they currently so lamentably fail.

Since we are living in an age when large numbers of mature, caring adults are being forced out of their usual occupation with another 15 years before retirement, the scope for staffing alternative centres of occupation and training for today's truants is potentially considerable and we should consider it. We might also consider changing our fiscal systems so as to make it easier for mothers who wish to care for their children themselves to do so. The current plan to mop up youth unemployment by "training" the unemployed to look after other people's children while the mothers go out to work seems likely to increase the problems for schools in the next generation, unless we exercise more imagination than we have so far done.

Andrew Rowe is Conservative MP for Mid Kent.

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