Out with the bully system
Comparing Learning Systems: the good, the bad, the ugly and the counter-productive
By Roland Meighan
Educational Heretics Press pound;12.50
True story. A boy in Year 6 was doing this year's maths SAT paper. Because he has special needs, he was allowed an adult reader. Despite this, and although he attends a caring and careful school, he got himself hopelessly confused. He put down his pencil and burst into desperate tears, crying out "I'm crap! I'm crap!"
When you've swallowed the lump in your throat, try measuring that boy's assessment of himself against the honourable and civilised values that we all believe to be implicit in the words "education", "teacher" and "school". Then ask yourself how we've managed to get ourselves into a position where we allow those values to be so traduced.
One answer is that we have constructed a "top-down" education system that defines success and failure in terms of how people measure up to a standard defined by those in charge. Roland Meighan calls such a system "authoritarian". "In authoritarian education, in its various forms, one person, or a small group of people, make and implement the decisions about what to learn, when to learn, how to learn, how to assess learning, and the learning environment."
It's a system, he writes, that's actually tailored for a totalitarian state. One of its hallmarks is "a bully curriculum - the compulsory National Curriculum enforced by the increasingly favoured bully pedagogy of teacher-directed formal learning."
In Comparing Learning Systems, Meighan sets authoritarian systems alongside three others, which he calls respectively autonomous, democratic and interactive. For each he provides some case studies. Autonomous learning, he suggests, is found in the home-schooling movement, of which he's a great supporter, and also in the public library (he once wrote to The TES to urge that schools be closed down and the money given to public libraries).
Democratic learning systems exist where power is shared between students and teachers. His case studies here include a teacher education course that he ran with a colleague as a studenttutor co-operative. The fourth category, of interactive learning systems, combines features of the others, acknowledging that when it comes to discipline, for example, neither authoritarian nor autonomous approaches will be effective on their own.
The great value of Meighan's book of his life's work, in fact, as an academic, a publisher and a writer, is that it tells us, quite simply, that education doesn't have to be the way it is. It's easy to fall into a belief that if the school system is sick - as it surely is - then all we have to do is apply more of the same medicine. More truants? Set the cops on them.
Poor attainment? Give them more tests. It's an approach, Meighan believes, that actually makes the problems worse and deepens the spiral.
"I never thought," he writes, "as a young teacher setting out on my career over 40 years ago, that I would live to see...". He goes on to set out a dozen of today's horrors, starting with "a parent sent to prison because her children were too unhappy at school to attend", moving through "a third of all teachers wanting to leave teaching as soon as possible", and ending with "random drugs testing proposed for children in school".
Meighan's deep conviction is that an authoritarian system has no place in a country that prides itself on being a beacon of freedom. "Why is a totalitarian-sympathetic learning system operating in what likes to call itself a democracy?"
It's significant, he writes, that it's visitors to Britain who've lived under repressive regimes who instantly recognise our system for what it is.
In 1989 Meighan asked a visiting professor from Poland what she intended to report back about the national curriculum. She said that she'd tell them it was totalitarian: "the worst development in Europe at the moment".
If there's hope for the future, he concludes, it lies in five major developments that hold out hope for change: direct access to information through ICT; deeper understanding of how the brain works; greater understanding of learning styles; Howard Gardner's work on types of intelligence; and the significant increase in home-based education. All of these (including the last, which carries many messages about the effectiveness of self-managed learning) are there already to be tapped into as agents of change. He says: "A radical change is going to be needed to get a learning system fit for a democracy. It needs to get away from domination and its endless stream of uninvited teaching. It needs to recognise that, in a democracy, learning by compulsion means indoctrination and that only learning by invitation and choice is education."
Could it happen? Meighan thinks that the models for how it can be done are already there: in libraries; museums; community arts programmes; education co-operatives. He's even prepared to accept that some schools are doing their best to work democratically. For him, though, the true and most successful form of genuine education is found among the home educators.
"And unsurprisingly, these families usually make a bee-line for their local democratic learning institution, the public library."
Roland Meighan says this is his last book. "I think I've reached the point where I've had my say, and it's time to hand over."
That's a shame, because although clearly a radical, he carries the authority - much valued by those parents and non-professionals who sometimes feel marginalised - of a long and successful teaching and academic career, as a senior lecturer at Birmingham University, and then as special professor of education at Nottingham. All the time, he's given support through his books, articles and lectures to those who yearn for the beat of a different educational drum. Not only that, but through Educational Heretics Press he's given a valuable publishing voice to those of similar mind.
"We've published 85 books," he says, "none of which would have seen the light of day with commercial publishers, and we've brought into the light a number of good writers and given them their voice."