student studying

This article was originally published in Freedom, in 2005

All over the Western world education is being reduced to forcing as many children as possible to take as many exams as possible, regardless of individual needs, talents or interests. In this country we have organised competition between schools via league tables; in the world at large there is organised competition between countries via the OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). (Britain cunningly avoided being listed in the 2003 PISA by claiming to have inadequate data.)

The usual competitive reaction is a greater insistence on a national curriculum, uniformity and testing. Australia, for example, in spite of being above average in PISA in all categories, has just introduced new legislation demanding national tests in English, maths, science, citizenship and IT in years 3, 5 and 7, reporting on individual children in comparison to others, national curricula, the display of a poster of the values to be promoted in each school and the flying of the Australian flag.

Chris Woodhead, the former Ofsted chief, once said that the purpose of education was to turn children into human beings. It had apparently escaped his notice that children are human beings already. The fundamental faults of our education system arise from this kind of ruthless scorn for young people.

Joanna Gore spent three months in a primary school researching into power and resistance. Afterwards she wrote this:


"Imagine being forced by law to go every day to an institution where people make you stand in lines, sit on the floor and listen for hours to talk that is of no interest to you; where they restrict your movement, shout at you and punish you for being lively; where they take away your 'privileges' (your freedom, your clothes or your belongings) for saying what you think. The fact that basic human rights are called privileges when applied to children is telling in itself. In order to oppress children and to allow these atrocities to go on with a clear conscience we adults must dehumanise children - we say they are not yet people."

Joanna Gore, Leave me Alone,


This sounds like the attitude of the ruling class to the proletariat in any dictatorship. No wonder many children resist such attempts at control by creating classroom disturbance and deliberately learning as little as possible.

Benjamin Day described his 'failure' in conventional schooling like this:


"I remember specifically this cycle: resistance to work typically generates greater and greater condescension from the teachers, which made me less and less interested in doing work for them. The classes in which I first began failing were exactly those in which conflicts with a teacher were sharpest. London [Howard London, author of The Culture of a Community College, Praeger Publishers, NY and London] notes that the more theoretical and abstract courses are singled out especially for disruption and disengagement. Rote memorization and cheating are also strategies of disengagement used by the community college students."

Benjamin Day, The Sudbury Valley School Journal, Vol. 34, No 5



Here are some snatches from a poem by a school student from Mold:


"Happy are these people to play along and become
A part of their system, like tin soldiers lined up.
They'll take away your name, your chance for a future,
But tin doesn't last, it rusts.

No one would consider making bread with no yeast.
It wouldn't rise. The question is
Should we be allowed to rise?

I look around and ask myself, is this what people want?
Is this what people need? That I doubt very much."

Geraint, aged 15



The complete poem is published in The School I'd Like, edited by Catherine Burke and Ian Grosvenor. Though in most other respects this book is excellent, Geraint, aged 15, along with all the other school students quoted, is denied status by not being given a surname.

Geraint uses the word 'people' where Chris Woodhead and others would prefer the word 'children'. Young people like Geraint are used to looking after themselves in the world outside school, earning and spending money, sometimes looking after younger siblings or standing in for the missing partner in single-parent families, sometimes caring for parents who are disabled or ill. And then when they come into school they find their competence has no value, because, for instance, their spelling is not up to scratch. Everything is dictated to them – how they spend their time, what, when and how they learn, even the clothes they wear. Some conform and become 'like tin soldiers lined up.' Some rebel publicly and many rebel privately by feigning the incompetence which is apparently expected of them. Jürg Jegge, the Swiss educator, wrote a book called Dummheit ist lernbar (Stupidity is learnable). He recognises that if you are told you are stupid, there is no longer any point in trying to learn. If your school routine implies that you are incompetent, then there is no point in trying to do anything.

Material problems children and schools face such as forbidding, drab buildings, large classes and empty tarmac playgrounds, could be solved by money and goodwill. However, the problem of adults not regarding children as human beings requires a more fundamental change. We will not see a natural enthusiasm for learning in schools and an end to truancy, bullying and disruption until teachers respect and trust their students.

One step towards achieving this is to recognise and publicise any movements in the right direction. Derry Hannam's 2001 research into the effects of involving children in decision-making threw up a dozen schools where there already was significant involvement, with measurable beneficial effects. Sharnbrook School in Bedfordshire is one example, where they introduced the practice of students acting as researchers to investigate problems in their own schools. This scheme was taken up by the Bedford Schools Improvement Partnership, which has recently found a new enthusiasm for student involvement ( Portsmouth has made similar efforts.
There is a new emphasis on what is called "personalised learning", though in most cases it will be the teacher who does the personalising, not the learner. Even so, the learner may escape by using IT, which is becoming more and more accessible in schools.

Citizenship education may offer another hint of progress. Even Ofsted is encouraging the formation of school councils and regrets that when such councils do not involve the whole school, "little or nothing is contributed to the National Curriculum citizenship for most pupils." (National Curriculum Citizenship: Planning and Implementation, 2002/3) With support from such an unexpected quarter it must surely be possible to raise the pressure on head teachers who persist in their old autocratic ways.

The DfES has recently published a document called Working together: Giving Children and Young People a Say (DfES 2003). The title still implies that this "say" is a gift rather than a right, but at least teachers know that the concept has official approval.

Ian Cunningham, of the Centre for Self-Managed Learning, attaches no importance to anything short of a total revolution in the educational system. The National College of School Leadership, on the other hand, hides admirable intentions behind the name that seems classically right-wing: school leadership as revealed their practice appears seems to mean that everybody leads - an extremely positive version of equality. A gradual erosion of the old attitudes may be more likely to succeed than a head-on attack.

ESSA, the English Secondary Students Association (now known as Student Voice) was launched in 2005 with the help of the Phoenix Education Trust. It is run by the young people themselves without the intervention of school staff that has been evident in the School Councils movement.

Home education is growing, and groups of parents sometimes combine to give their children social contact with others of their own age, and to widen the range of knowledge and skills they can offer. Some parents who educate their children at home do so for authoritarian reasons, for instance because they consider school discipline is too lax, or because they want fundamentalist religious instruction for their children. Those are the exceptions; the majority have justifiable objections to conventional schooling. Their successes should be acclaimed.

Another important step is to make sure that everyone knows about the schools and other organisations where children have been treated with proper respect in the past, or are being so treated in the present day. In the UK there was Prestolee, for instance, and Risinghill and Countesthorpe (in the early 1970s), which were all schools with a normal pupil intake. George Lyward and David Wills worked with children with marked behavioural difficulties. Summerhill and Sands School, independent and therefore charging fees because no educational authority will support them, provide models today. Abroad we should remember among others Janusz Korczak, Celestin Freinet and John Holt. There are many outstandingly successful free organisations working in non-formal education with street children, such as Butterflies, in Delhi, or with orphaned and abused children, like Moo Baan Dek in Thailand. There is plenty of evidence that respecting children as people is a successful way of helping them to cope with growing up, and at the same time to retain (or regain) their natural concern for the general welfare.

As the failure of centralised governmental approaches becomes more pronounced, the demands for discipline and obedience are redoubled, and this is bound to be counterproductive. It is not possible to force human beings to become genuinely co-operative and responsible. One day policy advisers and secretaries of state will have to accept the obvious, and at last young people and teachers will be allowed to learn, play and grow in an atmosphere of mutual trust.



Bedford Schools Improvement Partnership

Children's Rights Alliance for England

The Educational Heretics Press

ESSA - English Secondary Students Association (now known as Student Voice)

International Democratic Education Network

Home Education Advisory Service

Human Scale Education

OBESSU (The Organising Bureau of European School Student Unions)

The Phoenix Education Trust

Personalised Education Now

School Councils UK

Vidya on line has a number of interesting books available to download, including A Radical Approach to Child-rearing, by A. S. Neill, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, by John Locke, The Lives of Children, the Story of First Street School by George Dennison, King of Children: Biography of Janusz Korczak, by Betty Jean Lifton, The Education of the Child by Ellen Key and Totto Chan, the Little Girl at the Window, by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi



Risinghill: Death of a Comprehensive School

Leila Beig
Harmondsworth, Middlesex, Penguin Books, 1968

The School that I'd like
The views of school students in the 1960s

Edward Blishen
London, Penguin Books, 1969

Let our Children Learn

Tony Brown, Michael Foot and Peter Holt
Nottingham, Education Now, 2001

The School I'd Like
The views of school students in the new century

Catherine Burke and Ian Grosvenor
London, Routledge, 2003

Mr Lyward's Answer

Michael Burn
London, Hamish Hamilton, 1956
An abridged version is available on the web at

Education for Sanity

WB Curry
London, Heinemann. 1947

Dumbing us Down, the hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling

John Taylor Gatto
Philadelphia, New Society Publishers, 1992

Leave me Alone

Joanna Gore
Bristol, Libertarian Education, 2004

Considering Children

David Gribble
London, Dorling Kindersley, 1985

Real Education : Varieties of Freedom

David Gribble
Bristol, Libertarian Education, 1998


David Gribble
Bristol, Libertarian Education, 2004

Worlds Apart

David Gribble
Libertarian Education

A Pilot Study to Evaluate the Impact of the Student Participation Aspects of the Citizenship Order on Standards of Education in Secondary Schools

D Hannam
London, CSV, 2001
online at

How Children Fail

John Holt
London, Pelican Books, 1969

A Book about Prestolee School and its Headmaster EF O'Neill

Gerard Holmes
London, Faber and Faber, 1952
This book is downloadable from vidyaonline (see above)

Freedom to Learn

Carl and Freiberg Rogers, H. Jerome
New Jersey, Merrill, 1994

The Enquiring Classroom

Stephen Rowland
Brighton, Falmer Press, 1984

No Master High or Low: Libertarian Education and Schooling

John Shotton
1890 - 1990. Bristol, Libertarian Education, 1993

The Barns Experiment

David Wills
London, Allen and Unwin, 1945

Throw away thy Rod

David Wills
London, Gollancz, 1960

More articles by David Gribble