Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Full-time education - privilege or torture?

OK, you can stop giggling over there in the corner. This is not a stupid question! (Though I admit that it's intentionally eye-catching.)

So ... seriously now ... what is full-time education like for children? What is it for? How does it feel? Is it a privilege or a torture, a right or a duty? Is it all four? Does it matter that the ‘whining’ school-child creeps just as unwillingly to school today as in Shakespeare’s time? And why is that? What does it tell us about the terms under which children accept their fate?

Enough questions, woman! Time for some background. (And no dropping off at the back.)

Under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, children have the right to an education (article 28) which enables them to develop their ‘personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential’ (article 29). So the UNCRC places a duty on governments to provide an effective education for its children − but doesn’t attempt to direct how that provision might look. It can't, because different societies have very different ideas of what constitutes children’s ‘fullest potential’ and how to go about nurturing it.

In the UK, our design for nurturing children is a full-time state education that is available to all children between the ages of 5 and 16. It’s something of a holy cow – the reward for a long, hard slog towards universal education, and one that is valued so highly for enabling children to achieve their potential that the last government was planning to extend the provision even further, right up to the age of 18. Who knows whether the coalition will follow suit - probably not - but the idea is definitely on the map of possibilities.

Educating children is a remarkably optimistic thing to do, and it is right that this optimism is extended to all children in the UK (well, all those who aren't asylum-seekers in detention facilities, at any rate). In the distant past I benefited from a good state education and, despite many changes of both government and education policy in the intervening years, my children are benefiting from one right now. But enthusiasm for the provision doesn't mean that we should stop asking questions about it.

So, I say once more, is full-time education a right, a privilege, a duty or a torture for children? Think about how long they go to school. It’s 11 years right now, and may one day become 13. Then consider that this is not a provision that children may take advantage of, it's a provision they must take advantage of. They can’t choose to turn it down, and everyone around them - other children as well as adults who have all the decision-making power - accept this as right.

But imagine how you would feel if it was illegal for you to leave your job. Under any circumstances. Wouldn't that be conscription? Or state-sanctioned servitude - slavery even, given that children receive no financial reward for attending school? (I've tried to think of less sensationalist ways to characterise it, but I can't.)

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that the decision about whether to go to school should be a matter for personal choice. That wouldn’t benefit children or wider society, nor would it fulfil children's right to an education. But it’s a good idea to think about what that legal requirement to attend school means for children, what it feels like and, perhaps, what could change for the better. Does it have to be full time? Does it have to be on school grounds? Must paper qualifications be the only measures of success? Might there be alternatives?

Let's look at those four possible ways of describing the experience of school: as a right, a privilege, a duty and a torture.

The UNCRC, as I've said, is clear that children have a right to an education, and to one which enables them to develop to their fullest potential. But it categorically does not say this right can only be fulfilled through full-time education over a period of 11 or 13 years. So let's throw that out immediately.

There are certainly arguments to suggest that such a long period of education is a privilege. Compare, for instance, the country-by-country literacy rates recorded by Unesco with the same organisation's list showing the duration of compulsory education (click on the link to UNESCO school ages.zip). While there are exceptions (ah, dear old Cuba), the exercise broadly shows that longer periods of schooling protect against very low rates of literacy and make top rates likely, while shorter periods of schooling offer less protection from low literacy rates and make top rates less likely. (See the end of this post for key stats that lead to this conclusion.)

Not all societies will see literacy as the best measure by which to judge whether children are reaching their 'fullest potential', but it's central to us in the UK and so the schooling that makes our high literacy rate possible should, I think, be seen as a privilege - though a qualified one. It's worth bearing in mind that 27 countries achieve the same or a better rate with fewer years of compulsory schooling - and this is more than the number that achieve the rate after 11, 12 or 13 years.

The idea of school as a duty is not new, and there is now a strand of thinking about childhood which sees school as the 'work' of children: the modern equivalent of children going into apprenticeships or working in factories or their parents' fields (see especially Jens Qvortrup (1985) 'Placing children in the division of labour', in P. Close and R. Collins (eds) Family and economy in modern society, London: Macmillan). It's vital for individual children, for their families and for wider society that children engage in their 'work', and so it must indeed be their duty to do so. A difference between today and the past is that children's 'work' no longer contributes to earnings or produces useful outcomes now, it only makes them possible in the future.

And this is important because it's in this context that school might be conceived of as a sort of torture. Children are expected to fulfil their duty to attend school, and to comply with the rules they meet there, to learn and comply with a complex social code, complete the tasks that are set and display a 'positive disposition' towards the whole affair - all with no tangible reward other than adult approval until they reach the very last years of schooling. That's all very well for gregarious children who find they are able to learn the things that schools are interested in. It's not so hard for these children to find purpose in what they're doing and even to enjoy it.

But what of those who struggle with the job of connecting written symbols to spoken sounds, who thrive in the company of one or two adults rather than 30 children, who grow up in homes that don't or can't support their learning, or who need to move about, to learn with their bodies rather than sitting down with a pencil and a piece of paper? There is no doubt that we must all learn to work positively within our society, but is it really necessary that schooling must bash all those young, individual square pegs into one unforgiving round hole?

Of course, there are alternatives to the traditional. There are Steiner schools and forest schools - and there's always Summerhill. But they are few and they are generally fee-paying. You must have money for these choices - and, in any case, there are different inflexibilities built into these institutions; other dogmas that will not suit some children. Soon, the new government has promised, there will be 'free schools'. Might these open up possibilities for children to learn at their own pace and in different ways within the state system? Well, no, seeing as the coalition government also insists that every child in the land should be able to read by the age of six and so intends to maintain the route march towards measurable standards. These new schools will not be about children's freedom to learn in ways that suit them best - to gently shave at their square peg in an institution that is willing to adjust the round mould so each child can learn to understand it - but about adult freedom to bash away at the peg in their own way, without interference from local government.

(And don't talk to me about home schooling. It's irrelevant to the government's responsibility to provide for children's right to an education and merely proves that the state fails to accommodate all needs. It's a useful safety net, of course, but is available only to children whose families feel confident that they can educate their children and who are passionate enough to take this arduous step. If home schooling is the only answer, then children who do not fit into the school system but whose families are not interested in education simply cannot access their right to an education that nurtures them to their 'fullest potential'.)

My work lies mainly with young children's education and so I'm especially aware of the pressures on these small people who have the least to gain personally from their duty to comply with schooling. The future that education prepares them for is so very far away that it can have no tangible meaning. What purpose the times table? Why can't you learn it out in the snow? Who cares that D is for Dad - all that matters today is that he should love me. And so, too many five, six and seven year olds in Britain creep very unwillingly to school - most especially those in England, where the national curriculum is particularly careless of their tender age - and persistently get into trouble when they are unable to sit still for long periods of time. If that's how your experience of education begins, are you really likely to embrace it later on? To make the most of it? To reach your full potential? Maybe so, but how can we have got to a place where we not only accept but insist that the right to education, its privilege and duty, must involve endurance? Why can't it be kinder?

The only effective solution will be for a wholesale upheaval of education - a revolution in the way that we view children and childhood, in what children need to know and should learn, how they contribute to society and the value that is placed on their work. But that's hardly going to happen tomorrow, next year or in any foreseeable future. In the meantime, all I have are these many questions that might help us take some baby steps towards a more generous approach to learning. Any helpful answers will be gratefully received.

Literacy statistics

A literacy rate is the percentage of people aged 15 and over who are literate, and the UK's literacy rate is 99%.

(1) There are 42 other countries with a literacy rate of 99% or more, but only 15 of them have compulsory schooling for 11 years or more. Eleven countries school for 10 years, 12 school for 9 years and 2 school for 8 years. Cuba and Georgia have compulsory schooling for only 6 years.

(2) There are 37 other countries with compulsory schooling for 11 or more years. For 12 of these Unesco doesn't provide a literacy rate. We already know that 15 of the remaining 25 achieve a literacy rate of 99% or more. A further 4 have literacy rates above 90% (but below 99%), 3 are between 80 and 90%, 2 between 70 and 80% and 1 between 50% and 60%. No countries with 11 or more years of compulsory schooling have a literacy rate below 50%.

(3) There are 24 countries with 6 years of compulsory schooling (just 8 countries worldwide have fewer years of compulsory education). Four of these (including Cuba and Georgia) have literacy rates above 90%, 8 are above 80%, 1 is above 70%, 4 above 60%, 1 above 50% and 6 are below the half-way mark. The lowest literacy rate after six years of compulsory schooling is 25.7% in Chad.

1 comment:

  1. My experience is torture for children with mild to moderate special needs. Schools do not understand how to accommodate these children and do not understand their legal duties. They are unable to provide them with an education that allows them to achieve their full potential and to develop in a way where they have a positive view of themselves.