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Down with skool | Lincoln Allison

Down with skool | Lincoln Allison

William Brown, Richmal Crompton’s “Just William”, faces a telling-off from a teacher for not paying attention. A hundred years ago, the 1920s teacher remarks, he might have been made to crawl up chimneys for a living instead of being educated, so he should consider himself jolly lucky to be in school. To which William replies that crawling up chimneys sounds pretty interesting, at least compared to having to sit behind a desk all day listening to said teacher banging on. Crompton, a feisty, disabled spinster, was a true subversive and she wasn’t going to let her fictional teacher get away with that crude application of the Whig theory of history.

From its inception the positive value of compulsory state education has been a nearly unchallenged orthodoxy. It wasn’t entirely unchallenged. The borough of Royal Leamington Spa, where I have lived for the great majority of my adult life, petitioned parliament to be excluded from the Education Act of 1870. The petition conceded that they could understand how it would be of benefit in the manufacturing districts if the working people could read and write and do arithmetic, but claimed that such training was an expensive irrelevance for the domestic servants of the Spa. They were given short shrift, of course. Then there was my grandfather’s village, Staithes, on the North Yorkshire coast. Nowadays it’s a famous tourist attraction, but in the 1870s it was a remote fishing village more easily accessed from the sea than the land. The first schoolteacher there reported that it was nigh on impossible to persuade the local children to turn up on time or sit behind desks all day. It worked in the end, and there is a rather staged photograph taken by the pioneering photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe in about 1880 of a small boy, explaining to several of my ancestors that they have misspelt the name on the prow of their boat.

Even in my primary school, mid-Pennines, mid-20th century, the substantial minority of pupils and parents from the farms were basically hostile to the whole project. As a nosey nine-year-old I remember listening to one particular farmer, who had been asked whether his son should take the 11-plus, expressing to the head teacher both indignation and incredulity that the boy should be required to attend secondary school at all since he was needed on the farm. The boy in question came to school in clogs (which were common) and corduroy knee britches and knitted knee socks (which were not); this was also what his father wore. That can be taken to symbolise much of the opposition to compulsory state education: reactionary and peripheral, mostly people, like farmers and fishermen, who had other uses for those whom the state sought to educate.

I don’t fall into the typical pattern of the anti-educationalist. I am the son, husband and nephew of head teachers and the father of teachers. My usual line is to tell them that I’m not opposed to education per se, but only if it is compulsory, run by the state…. and sometimes a few other stipulations. At this point I’m usually told that I’m barking mad, and that this isn’t a matter for serious discussion — though the rather telling exception to this reaction is the son who is actually currently teaching in a state school. I am, after all, expressing doubts about a tradition of western thought from Plato to John Stuart Mill and through to Tony Blair — though the Great Leader’s belief in “Education, Education, Education” turned out only to be a matter of spending more money on the same old failed institutions.

Both socialists and capitalists favour conventional schooling

To those who think that opposition to schooling is mad, the obvious answer is to point out the insanity of having hulking 16-year-olds who have no interest in the subjects they are supposed to be learning sitting behind desks for most of most days of the year. It would have been regarded as madness in most periods in history, and it seems cruel as well as mad if the unwilling are in the same room as those who want to learn. If I don’t admit to insanity, however, I do admit to a form of Utopianism. This form emphasises not so much the sense in which Utopia is “nowhere”, but the paradox in which it is a real destination that you can’t get to. The “Utopian paradox” has been defined in many ways, but I am using it to mean that there is a destination which is theoretically possible, but that any attempt to get there will either put you in a position that is even further away than you are now — or mean that you incur political costs which are so high that you lose all prospect of influencing events. The destination is a society that is far more knowledgeable and skilled than is the case now because people choose to be educated and regard education as a permanent process.

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Since both socialists and capitalists favour conventional schooling, the opposition to it has been eccentric and from the fringes of both “left” and “right” (les extrêmes se touchent — I don’t know of an equivalent expression in English). I can’t claim to be a lone voice. In my view the most interesting expression of it came from Ivan Illich, whose 1971 book Deschooling Society was a fashionable read when I lived in California in the 1970s. The general theme is that the forms of order and discipline in schools duplicate the industrial system and tend to kill any love of learning; the argument can be called anti-institutionalisation. One might jump to the conclusion that Illich was some kind of “cultural marxist”, a follower of Antonio Gramsci, so it came as some surprise to discover that he was a catholic priest from a Jewish ethnic background who described himself as “a wandering Jew and a Christian pilgrim”. He was a refugee from the Anschluss and a “liberation theologian”.

Illich saw the future of education as much more tailored towards individual needs, consisting of a variety of “learning networks” catering for these needs, and entered into voluntarily. He also saw information technology as playing a central role, a view that seems remarkably prescient, though it was what everybody in California talked about at the time. Fifty years on the state education system has apparently deteriorated further and the other possibilities for learning expanded steadily. When I have been involved in debates on the value of university education (with me at the sceptical end), I have often been told that “auto-didactism” (it sounds like a disease put that way) has very narrow limits.

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My experience as a wandering gentile suggests this is not so. I have met people — in Pistoia and Tbilisi, for instance — who have never left their country but speak fluent English, having learned it from the internet. Compare that with the costs of language courses in English schools, not to mention the effects. Conversely to the scepticism about self-teaching, I have severe doubts about the value of the “classroom situation”. My experience of teaching children of school age is limited and was mainly at something called the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth; they were motivated all right, but mainly motivated towards trying to establish some sort of pecking order rather than actually learning anything. It is both depressing and exhilarating to realise that when I lunch with the carpenter working in my house, he knows more history than most of my former colleagues — who were politics professors. The general principle seems to be that the possibilities are almost unlimited where people want to learn, but pretty minimal where they don’t.

They live in a world of headphones, homework and social media

It must be acknowledged that my posing as an Illich-supporting hippie is more than odd. After all, I went to a very traditional, authoritarian grammar school (Lancaster Royal Grammar School) as a boarder and seemed to have gained rather a lot as a consequence. I have spoken and written of what a good education it was and even served a term as President of the Old Lancastrians. I left school at just seventeen, having been allowed to travel at my own pace and rarely exposed to the sort of “one size fits all” classes that are the norm in modern education. I knew Latin, which served (almost immediately, as it happens) as a basis for understanding several other languages. Because of assault courses, “arduous training camps” and the newly-invented interval training, I was physically fit and knew how to remain so. I was a crack shot and trained in unarmed combat. I had friends I still see, sixty years later. As a restless and naughty spirit, I had been beaten frequently; therefore I had learned “not to care that it hurts” (a line given by David Lean to T.E.Lawrence though I can’t see that he ever actually said it).

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I left school as an empowered and happy teenager full of curiosity and a desire for life. I have six grandchildren currently at school, and I wish I could predict that they will have those assets when they are seventeen. To different degrees they live in a world of headphones and tablets, homework, social media and “pressure”, much happier in their own sporting and musical “networks” than at school. The good news is that they can put together their own package of activities to acquire skills and self-esteem in their spare time, though it costs money and leaves them with little of that precious idleness. I am inclined to conclude that an extreme version of compulsory education is great. In other words, if you were actually to do the thing properly, it’s a great idea — but there is zero chance of doing it properly under current circumstances.

I offer two proposals, one radical and the other modest. The radical one is simply to get rid of schools and use the land for housing. Nobody is going to do it (Utopian problem), but I suspect that it would work well, with those who wanted to be educated doing better than before. It would be argued that only the middle classes (and above) would do well under these circumstances. That’s the majority these days, though, and the facts show that social mobility amongst the rest dried up long ago. The modest proposal (which I think would be supported by many teachers) is simply to have a national service alternative, where those who make it clear by thought or deed that they do not want to learn are part of disciplined squads doing farm work, environmental maintenance and so on, with the option to return to class if they are clear that they want to learn. Nobody in a place of learning should be able to say that they are there because they have no choice.

  • June 25, 2023