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Who needs coercion?

Take the compulsory out of education - for everyone's sake. My late father, a lifelong teacher, often remarked that the only thing wrong with the Education Act was the word "compulsory": so this is not a new idea. Yet quite a furore has been stirred up by my restating this simple suggestion.

Tabloid headlines like "Barmy Sir", "Bottom of the class" and "Daft Mr Mackay" combined with the educational establishment to pour scorn on the idea. But is it so daft? Who has never suffered disruption in the classroom? Who cannot remember the frustration of lessons interrupted by the disaffected and uninterested?

How often do answers have to be dragged out of the pupils? How often do we acknowledge that school has done nothing for an individual, that we have been marking time until the pupil can legally leave?

And yet this torture is visited upon us, teacher and pupil alike, because of the political fixation that education should be compulsory, that it is the medicine that will cure all ills and that the individual parent or student cannot choose not to take the medicine, however bitter the pill or how drastic the side effects.

Perhaps with the new millennium it is time to review how society's responsibility to educate its members can best be delivered. It is my belief that since the state can afford to offer 13 years of compulsory education to all, then equally it can offer 13 years of voluntary educational entitlement to all, to be taken as and when the individual sees fit. There are four good reasons for this suggestion.

First, accepting that teaching is a stressful occupation, there could be a reduction of workload: no more time spent on class registration, checking attendance, or chasing up truants. The responsibility for attendance rests with the student andor parent. In emerging countries, education is voluntarily embraced and held in high esteem.

Second, misbehaviour in class can quickly be addressed by "removal of privilege". Admittedly this can be done at present in schools, but contrast the paper chase with miscreants simply being shown the door. Again a reduction in stress for the teacher (and pupils?).

Third, by choosing to be educated at the appropriate time, or psychological or physiological stage, the ethos of the classroom will improve. "Education for all" and "lifelong learning" can cease being mere soundbites.

This is the way to get rid of a culture where people admit "I never could do maths" or "I never learnt to speak a foreign language" without a hint of a blush, and equally without any intention to redress their perceived shortcomings. No longer should the "struggling with the mind while struggling with the body" syndrome prevail, as arranging time out will be an option. Equally, opting in at any point will be quite normal.

But last and most important, the quality of educational experience will be greatly improved for students choosing to be in the classroom. Consider today's captive audience. There is no compulsion to make schooling a more attractive option than, say, hanging around street corners or the local snooker hall. In a free-market climate, honest competition should bring benefits to all, not least of which will be innovative approaches using ever smarter technology.

If, however, students leave classrooms in droves, then questions must be asked about the relevance of what is being offered in these classrooms. Schools should be competing with (and beating hands down) the alternatives.

This nirvana is not without its problems. New stresses will be created by the needs of a volunteer population participating in education. Society as a whole may have to take on some of the burdens usually carried by schools. Discussion is required to resolve problems such as at what developmental stage young people can make such choices.

Can it be determined other than chronologically? Should society try to educate the parents who won't send their children to school? (How often has the comment about "educating the parents" been heard in staffrooms?) Perhaps voluntary attendance will also get rid of the ethos,especially in secondaries, that it is not cool to be seen to be trying hard.

As you can see I don't pretend to know all the answers, or even all the questions, but I do know that unless we have the debate on how our education system delivers we will continue to be taking horses to water and finding that those who do not want to drink prevent the others from reaching the trough.

Colin Mackay teaches mathematics at Craigmount High School, Edinburgh. He is also a lecturer with the Royal Society of Edinburgh primary maths masterclasses (voluntary Saturday morning classes for P6 and P7 pupils) and secretary to the Edinburgh local association of the Educational Institute of Scotland. He writes in a personal capacity.

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