Goodbye to today's work houses

Schools are totalitarian bodies in a democratic state.

asks if their days are numbered

I grow ever more convinced that there'll come a time when compulsory schooling will be seen for what it surely is - an irrational, even panicky response to our natural desire for our children to be cleverer and happier than we are.

"Tell me again about schools, Grandad. Is it true that you had to go whether you wanted to or not?"

"It certainly is, my child. Infants were wrested, weeping, from their mothers' arms. Teenagers were swept up from the streets by agents of the state. Otherwise law-abiding parents were taken to court for allowing their children to stay away from school. The word 'truant', which is now a term of approval for an adventurous child who wants to go to a community learning centre instead of staying home, then meant exactly the opposite."

"And were all the children really herded into big buildings and shouted at by adults? Tell me again what it was all for, Grandad."

"Well, my child, it was to teach them the skills they needed for successful living in the community outside."

"But Grandad!"

"Yes, my child... I know, I know."

Fanciful nonsense? Don't be so sure. My grandparents knew about workhouses.

An accepted part of the social landscape for centuries, they now seem impossibly inhuman and counterproductive. One day, schools will be seen like that - a transient phenomenon, destined to fade gracefully away as the forces that created them gradually lose their impetus.

Compulsory mass schooling arose to service a factory-driven, urban society.

It's no coincidence that totalitarian states - Nazi Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union - were inordinately keen on it. Roland Meighan, former special professor of education at Nottingham University, asks: "What are we doing with this totalitarian-style institution in a democracy when we already have democratic educational institutions such as public libraries?"

The argument is usually against compulsion rather than against schools themselves. Many home-schoolers meet in co-operative ventures. The underlying belief is that the very idea of forcing someone to learn is self-contradictory.

The response to those who think that all of this is pie in the sky - that, for example, replacing schools with optional, "on demand" educational networks with tutors, mentors, consultant experts, the wheels oiled by modern ICT, is unrealistic - is to ask whether they think what we have now is working properly.

In 1973, Ivan Illich wrote that by assuming that more schooling leads to better education, schools actually achieve the opposite of what they set out to do.

"The pupil is thereby "schooled" to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is schooled to accept service in place of value."

Illich believed that all big institutions create the needs they are supposed to satisfy, then keep control over access to the remedies.

The mid-1970s was the heyday for the idea of de-schooling. Some free schools, with wide choices about attendance and curriculum, were set up in big cities and ran successfully for years. There were radical experiments with free regimes and curricula in state schools - for example, Countesthorpe college in Leicestershire.

In the United States, the Parkway Program in Philadelphia showed how a high school could be run without a building, using the premises and inbuilt expertise of local hospitals, galleries and libraries. In the end, though, the radicalism at school level faded. The effort to swim against the tide of authority (and of tabloid disapproval) was too great. And in any case, there was, ready and waiting, a much easier, cheaper and more effective way forward for those who didn't like the schools on offer.

As Meighan says: "The home educators almost stole the clothes of the de-schoolers by having a more immediately available and practical alternative."

So while we may not have the free schools and radical communities any more, there are many more de-schooled children now than we ever had in the radical 1970s.

"In 1977 when I started to research home educators," says Meighan, "I found maybe 20 families doing it. Now, at the most cautious estimate, 30,000 families are educating children at home in this country."

Much of Ivan Illich's work is in print. 'Deschooling Society', Marion Boyars Publishers, is listed by Amazon at pound;8.95; 'Education Without Schools' at pound;2.44 Roland Meighan's books, and others on alternative schooling, are published by Educational Heretics Press.

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