At the heart of our school system is a paradox. The UK Government wants its citizens to become independent. It demands that they take responsibility for their pensions, their portfolios of work, their parenting, and their health.
However, the preparation for this autonomy and the necessary skills of decision-making and researching throughout life, is . . . learning what they say you are to learn, where they decide, when they decide, in the manner they decide.
This is, in effect, a course in practical slavery, not practical autonomy, since rigid systems based on submission, produce rigid submissive minds. This is not the only paradox.
"Democracy is the absence of domination," declared Professor Sibusiso Bengu, Nelson Mandela's choice for minister of education for South Africa. It therefore requires the democratisation of the institutions for learning, including "a learners-driven curriculum", he concluded.
But in the UK the defining characteristic of schools is that they are riddled with domination. What does a personalised education, that is also democratically-sensitive, look like?
We can make a start with a comment from Tony Blair: "The revolution in business . . . will, over time, take place in education, too. We will move away from a system that assumes every child of a particular age moves at the same pace in every subject, and develop a system directed to the particular talents and interests of every pupil" (quoted by Michael Barber in the Guardian, January 30, 1996).
Such an approach requires reversing most of the current assumptions about places for learning. For more than 20 years, I have been studying the ways of home-based educators to see what lessons could be learned. I find that they have been quietly trailblazing the principles of the next learning system, by developing practical autonomy.
Learner-managed learning: Home-schoolers take it for granted that learners will manage their own learning, at first in style and soon after that in content. This is often achieved by a process of trial and error, feedback both from themselves and from sympathetic others, and developing a self-correcting approach.
A network of learning sites: When I was collecting information from home-based educating families in the late 1970s and 1980s, I found that I had to do most of my visits on Sundays. Whenever I telephoned to fix appointments at other times, I would find that the learners were learning out and about in various libraries, museums, exhibitions, gatherings such as auctions, expeditions, sports centres, and meetings with adults who had offered some useful learning opportunity.
They had already taken on the idea of the community as a source of learning sites. Microsoft has adopted the slogan of "Everywhere and anywhere learning" - an approach already in use by home-educating families.
The catalogue curriculum: Here, the learners, whether in schools full-time, or in flexi-time schooling, or full-time home-based education, are offered a printed or electronically-stored catalogue of learning opportunities. This includes set courses, ideas for making their own courses, instructions on how to set up a learning co-operative, self-instructional packages and available learning resources and opportunities in the local, national and international community.
Personal learning plans: The Royal Society of Arts has been promoting the idea of personal learning plans. Former director Sir Christopher Ball saw the aim of the project as creating a learning culture in Britain. By implication, years of compulsory mass schooling have done no such thing, so something has to be done to reverse the trend.
Home-based educators just get on with the idea of personal learning plans and some even write and publish their own declarations of education in a family-designed brochure.
Direct access to the information-rich society: Seymour Papert in Mindstorms forecast how computer technology would change things by modifying the environment outside classrooms, writing:
"I believe that the computer presence will enable us to so modify the learning environment outside the classroom that much, if not all, the knowledge schools presently try to teach with such pain and expense and such limited success will be learned, as the child learns to walk, painlessly, successfully, and without organised instruction."
This implies that schools, as we know them today, will have no place in the future. The learning institutions to replace them need to be all-year-round, open-all-hours, open-to-all ages, and invitational rather than coercive.
To achieve all this, we may have to close down the Department for Education and Employment, send Employment to Trade and Industry where it belongs, and open a new Department for the Encouragement of Learning, clearly signalling a radical change in outlook.
Teachers as learning agents: In his book In Place of Schools John Adcock develops the idea of a new role for teachers. The new teacher would not work in a school but in a centre, or from home, or both, and their concern would be to help devise and service the personal learning plans of a group of clients.
I see them as akin to learning "travel agents". Teachers as learning agents would operate from their "learning travel bureau" helping any learner to "visit" and explore any learning that was chosen, and providing guidance and encouragement as deemed necessary. They would assist the learners to "plan, do and review". They would be "learning coaches" helping people learn how to teach themselves better.
Assessment on request: Philip Gammage observed that "Nobody grew taller by being measured." This would seem to put assessment firmly in its place as a mass schooling fetish.
There are, however, several provisos. Scandinavian countries already manage perfectly well without anything like external examinations such as the UK's GCSEs and A-levels. But they introduce vocational tests post-schooling on the sensible grounds that people who provide services in society need to be appropriately qualified; no one I know wants their teeth attended to by unqualified people.
In addition, testing can be available on request. The grades for musical instrument proficiency are an example of such tests, and so are the examinations people must take before being allowed to drive large vehicles.
The paradox at the heart of the present learning system is long-standing. It was pointed out by Bertrand Russell in the 1920s: "We are faced with the paradoxical fact that education has become one of the chief obstacles to intelligence and freedom of thought."
A "good" school as seen through official eyes is, therefore, a bad education. No wonder the anthropologist Margaret Mead was moved to write:
"My grandmother wanted me to have an education so she kept me out of school."
Dr Roland Meighan is author of "The Next Learning System: and why home-schoolers are trailblazers", published by Educational Heretics Press. He was formerly Special Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham. Contact www.gn.apc.orgedheretics
* EDUCATION OR SCHOOLING?
"My schooling not only failed to teach me what it professed to be teaching, but prevented me from being educated to an extent which infuriates me when I think of all I might have learned at home by myself."
George Bernard Shaw "I never allowed schooling to interfere with my education."
Mark Twain "When I came back from the morning (of his first day at school), my mother asked what I had learned. I said, 'I really didn't learn anything'. I sat at the back of the class, and there was a little window high up on the wall, through which I could see branches. I hoped that a bird would alight. No bird alighted, but I kept hoping, and that's about all I could report. So my mother promptly said,'Well, we'll educate you at home.'" Yehudi Menuhin