Going to a comprehensive school in the 1970s it did not occur to me that there were any alternatives to schooling. The hierarchical organisation of the school, fear of the cane and preparation for a life of labour was the common bread of our experience. However looking back it was the everyday humiliation of schooling I remember the most. Sorting the children into ranks and ability streams seemingly marked the children for a life of success and failure. Later after leaving school I had a chance encounter with Ivan Illich’s ‘Deschooling Society’ in a radical bookshop. The main problem with confusing schooling with education was named and addressed. Indeed it was only when I got to university before the onset of marketisation that I discovered that education was more a matter of independent reading, dialogue and critical thinking.
University at that time seemed to offer not only an escape from a boring office job, but also a space where you would encounter genuinely independent thinkers. It was a long way from the securitised libraries, competition for income streams, satisfaction league tables and compulsory attendance that dominate today. However it was Illich’s now often forgotten book that sent me on this path. His powerful critique of the institutional takeover of education and the radical alternatives that might emerge through self-education and learning networks has never been bettered. What remains important about Illich’s book today is the link between the enclosure of education within institutions and the emergence of industrial and capitalist modernity. In this sense he offers a radical challenge to all those who want to think differently about education today.
The education debate at present seems to be stuck in a logjam. Most of the political parties have signed up to a system that seeks to raise the ability of students to score well in standardised tests, thereby enabling the UK to improve its economic competitiveness. This has now led to an understanding of education that is subsumed within utilitarian forms of calculation where the best outcome is assumed to be whatever works to improve exam results. This has led to increased state involvement in education through Ofsted and other powerful agencies who seek to measure school performance. The displacement of local councils, increased power of head teachers, erosion of teacher autonomy and new forms of corporate discipline has pushed us into the age of the academy school.
Much of the social democratic Left remains nostalgic for the comprehensive era as at least schools sought to mix students from different class backgrounds and promote inclusivity. However it has been notable that while the attempt to save ‘our’ NHS has struck a popular chord the comprehensive system has been quickly discarded with little popular resistance. The reason for this is probably because the main experience that most working-class children took away from school was one of failure. If you wanted to design a system that discouraged people from learning then it would be hard to think of anything more effective than school.
One of the most radical features of Ivan Illich’s analysis was his argument that schooling was built upon the alienation of the learner. In other words, schools reduced children to the status of objects to be assessed, weighed and measured. In this process the school presumed the right to force you to learn what it felt was worthwhile knowledge. This mostly leaves little room for the ideas, interests and needs of the students. There were of course radical teachers who sought to fight against this process but this was the overwhelming experience of the many. It seemed to be the job of the school I attended to ‘fit’ the ‘successful’ boys to craft apprenticeships and the girls to a job in Boots and a life of domesticity.
There was no opportunity to explore who we thought we were, our interests, alternative understandings of politics and history or a life of the imagination. Schools today, despite improvements in results, are similarly instrumental places if perhaps with the banning of corporal punishment marginally less cruel. I have three differently abled children, all of whom are being constantly graded and assessed as the school sorts out who are likely to achieve the desired test and exam scores. If anything the entry of the market into education has displaced the possibility of more experimental forms of pedagogy leaving instead rigid conformity for both teachers and students. If the alternative to the present does not lie within a return to the comprehensives of the past then where should we look?
We need to engage in a double vision when it comes to education. This means viewing education as something that takes place both inside and outside of schools. If schools can be places of learning then so can the media, the family and the community more generally. Our schools could indeed become both more humane and critical places than they are able to be at the present.
Firstly, we need to look at size: the American Anarchist Paul Goodman often remarked that schools were on the whole too large to be humanistic. Once you move beyond junior education in England schools lose a face to face character and tend to become very bureaucratic, top-down places full of rules and sanctions. Whereas smaller scale schools can be places of mutuality and learning often secondary level institutions are large and impersonal. This does not create a good place for learning and thinking. Secondly, students and teachers need to be allowed to be more autonomous working on issues and problems that actually interest them. Much teaching to the test is simply a matter of quick fire remembering and forgetting. Third, the role of the state needs to be radically reduced with schools and colleges becoming more autonomous, capable of setting their own goals without the presumption that everything can be measured. Finally I would suggest that, in a class-based society built on the privileges of private education, that state schools need to achieve similar levels of funding per child and should receive a progressive increase in resources. This would both radically reduce class sizes and recognise the importance of education rather than schooling where students become free to learn subjects they are actually interested in with the progressive abandonment of compulsory learning.
Ultimately these changes will require a radically democratised state that is less concerned with expensive military adventures than it is the educational development of the young.
Further, as I indicated, much learning goes on outside the enforced boredom of the school gates. More broadly we need to recognise the extent to which childhood had been commodified. Children are now explicitly targeted as the consumers of shiny gadgets and designer wear. This is not just a problem for the parents, but also for the children as they learn to think and act like consumers. Clearly moralising about other people’s pleasures is a problem, but then so is the corporate take-over of the imagination. Here radicals need to build critical spaces of reflection where we can think together about what is happening to our children where many are excluded and others prepared for the corporate ladder.
If we want our children to become independent minded, creative and critical people then we need to run conferences, work-shops and other spaces where the imperatives of the current system can be carefully questioned and analysed. Instead of presuming that everything of value can be quantified we need to ask questions about the quality of our shared lives. If we are to begin to imagine a world beyond hierarchy and exploitation we will need the critical resources to do so without presuming that the practice of education can be simply left to the professionals. Education is far too important to be left to institutions which not surprisingly mostly have to chase the current agenda. Instead more radical voices are urgently needed to open up more complex questions beyond the current tired talk about standards, discipline and training for upward mobility.
There is perhaps a new appetite for these questions as it becomes increasingly obvious that our schools, college and universities become more explicitly designed to meet the needs of the corporate sector rather than people. If the current system is broken as many people are beginning to see for themselves there is no clear path to an alternative. Instead of simply seeking to change the system from above through the state I would argue that debate about education needs to be radically democratised. This can only happen once we have carefully listened to those who in the past have been dismissed as the waste products of the system. The twenty-first century needs an extended debate about the multiple meanings of education and to think carefully about how a more humane alternative might emerge.
Nick Stevenson is a Reader in Cultural Sociology at the University of Nottingham, and is the author of Education and Cultural Citizenship published in 2011 by Sage.
Image: Harold Copping ‘The Dunce’