What's the damage?

22nd October 2004 at 01:00
Audrey Osler commends a book that counts the cost of schools' failure to guarantee children's rights

Schooling as Violence: how schools harm pupils and societies

By Clive Harber

RoutledgeFalmer pound;22.50

Schooling as Violence examines what goes wrong when schools ignore democratic values and neglect children's rights. Clive Harber draws on examples from 80 countries, including the UK, to explore violence in schooling. He focuses on pupils' experiences, suggesting that violent attacks on teachers have already received much attention in the media.

The book presents uncomfortable evidence of ways in which teachers and schools have harmed students, physically, sexually and psychologically. But it would be wrong and over-simplistic to interpret it as an attack on teachers. Harber argues that authoritarian relationships are a dominant theme of schooling internationally and that much school violence is a result of schooling's authoritarian nature.

Internationally, children's rights have not been guaranteed in schools, nor has education for democracy, peace, human rights and critical awareness been characteristic of most schooling. Much of the evidence is chilling.

Harber shows how schools have been implicated in direct violence such as maltreatment, rape, and even, as was the case in Rwanda, genocide, where Hutu teachers denounced and killed Tutsi students. He also discusses indirect violence, when schools fail to protect pupils, for instance Japan and Italy's failure to build earthquake resistant school buildings.

Reluctance to discuss HIVAids, especially in countries with high levels of infection, is also identified as a form of indirect violence. Teachers are often not trained to address controversial issues and may face taboos in talking about sex and sexuality.

Harber also highlights repressive violence, the denial of fundamental human rights, such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of movement. He provides many examples from around the world, but many from close to home. Alienating working conditions, social ostracism and living in fear are other expressions of violence. Examples such as homophobic bullying and racist abuse have resonance in the British context. My own research analysing Year 10 students' experiences across one English city reveals everyday violations of rights. In one school, the toilets were kept locked throughout much of the day, causing students discomfort and humiliation.

Whether the examples are extreme or everyday occurrences, they reflect a lack of respect for children's human rights. Harber suggests that the irrelevant, alienating and sometimes threatening nature of schooling contributes to low enrolment and high drop-out rates in many developing countries. He argues that attempts to realise universal primary education are futile unless parallel efforts are made to address the quality and values of schooling.

Harber's book is challenging, especially so in Britain, where there is some confusion about education for democracy. Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by the UK, all young people have the right to an education that encourages respect for human rights and democratic values. Despite this, I have heard educators argue that to teach for human rights and democracy is indoctrination. Educational researchers in the UK seem reluctant to place their work in the context of democracy and children's human rights. For example, important work published this year by Professor Jean Rudduck and colleagues at Cambridge University stresses the value of consulting learners about their schooling, but makes only passing reference to children's right to be consulted. Instead, the researchers emphasise the instrumental benefits of consulting young people, highlighting how consultation supports school improvement.

This apparent discomfort in addressing democracy in education reflects a wider political climate where many educators are anxious about explicitly espousing democratic values. Others are cynical about democracy itself, though they rarely propose any alternative. Interestingly, even the 1998 Crick report, Education for Citizenship and the Teaching of Democracy in Schools, commissioned because of a perceived democratic deficit among the young, said little about how we might teach for democracy.

This is in stark contrast to developments globally, where curriculum reform is leading more and more countries to spell out the democratic values underpinning their vision of education. This is not just in Scandinavian countries, which have a long tradition of democratic education, but also in new democracies such as South Africa and in Latin American states, such as Chile, which recall a relatively recent period of dictatorship. In these contexts, citizens, including teachers, students and educational policy-makers, readily acknowledge that universal human rights principles underpin democracy. Consequently, human rights education is seen as a fundamental aspect of citizenship education.

Education for democracy also underpins the education systems of long-established democracies such as France and the United States, although there is often a contradiction between the principle and the realities of schools that have their roots in authoritarian and hierarchical structures.

Harber is one of a handful of British educationists who is not coy about his values. He explains that "underlying the book is a strong commitment to democracy as a political system, both at the macro level and at the level of institutions and individual behaviour, and to the importance of education for democracy". Despite the growing interest in policies promoting education for democracy, he highlights a very different reality at school level. One of the book's strengths is the way the author explains complex theories in straightforward language. This is, in itself, refreshing.

Another strength is its encyclopaedic range. This, paradoxically, also creates a problem, as the author has sometimes been forced to rely on newspaper reports rather than original sources of research. The book would have been stronger if he had avoided this, particularly in relation to the UK.

I was disappointed that he did not propose strategic responses to particular forms of violence. Perhaps this should be the focus of his next book.

Schooling as Violence is designed to be provocative. It raises more questions than it answers, and it will have succeeded if it engenders a lively debate. While it clearly doesn't provide teachers or policy-makers with immediate solutions to a serious concern, it nevertheless deserves to be widely read.

Audrey Osler is professor of education and director of the centre for citizenship and human rights education at the University of Leeds

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