Are we ready for a benign revolution?

15th August 2008 at 01:00

Outside the family, education should be the main source of personal happiness. If it is not, then we ought to re-think it quickly. What children learn at school affects them throughout their lifespan. The clinical psychologist Oliver James has argued that, as a nation, we are less happy than we were 50 years ago, despite our increased wealth.

Behind the cars, holidays and designer gear, we seem to conceal private angst. We fear our neighbours and over-protect our children. I used to catch sticklebacks in the burn near Edinburgh's Murrayfield's Ice Rink, but children today are not at liberty to experience such inexpensive, healthy outdoor fun without adult organisation and supervision.

Is our education system contributing to the solution or the problem? Perhaps the kind of educational experience available to ordinary kids is not helping them to be happy any more, and we should look at alternatives.

Our government extols the virtues of democracy across the globe, and the mantra of the true believer is choice 247. Yet, despite being wedded to the politics and apparent practice of this basic democratic value, the Government does not really allow parents to choose the right school for their child.

Parents invariably want the best for their child, whereby their specific needs, interests and personalities are respected and catered for. What government supplies is a monolithic system of education. Parents can select and succeed in winning a place for their child in a school outside their "catchment area", but the substance of that choice is superficial, because in the school of their choice everything is substantively the same as in the school they rejected - curriculum, teacher education training, CPD and lots more.

A Curriculum for Excellence is skewed towards economic imperatives, and neglects the contested values behind living a good and happy life. It's never made clear why educational Stalinism continues to pervade the provision of state education in the UK especially when governments enthusiastically trumpet choice for public sector users, particularly those social groups deemed to be less well off. What might choice look like if it was real?

The Scottish progressive educator AS Neill, founder of Summerhill School, advocated personal freedom for children. In A Dominie's Log (1916), he said his aim was to "form minds that will question, and destroy and rebuild". For him, happiness of a child was the paramount consideration and arose from the child experiencing personal freedom.

Some regard Neill's ideas as a threat to social order; others believe fresh challenges to the status quo are indispensable. Aspects of his philosophy are being incorporated into some state schools, to mitigate the effects of systemic failures: the pupil voice is apparent in democratic developments within schools and restorative practice is another example of an educational method that counters repression and fosters personal agency in children.

In an age of declining emotional literacy, schools must prioritise human rather than economic beings. Thus, a radical adoption of Neill's ideas, not as therapy but as an underlying ethos, could promote a benign revolution.

Chris Holligan is a senior lecturer in the school of education at the University of the West of Scotland.

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