Man in a Shed was one of many bloggers to pick up on the Daily Mail story this morning that pupils as young as 5 are to be given the right to have an ‘unprecedented’ say in the running of their schools.
The Daily Mail has reacted with traditional ‘shock, horror’ at this – in their eyes – ‘new’ proposal, but there is nothing new in the idea at all, excepting the now obligatory Nu-Labour ‘enforcement’ of the proposal. The Teacher’s Union have branded the amendment to the Education Bill grinding its slothful way through parliament as ‘akin to giving the lunatics the keys to the assylum’.
The idea came from the thinking of A. S. Neill who founded the progressive school Summerhill in 1924. The main principle behind the operation of the school is freedom. There is no compulsory attendance at classes, and most administrative questions are decided jointly by students and teachers. In 1999–2000 the British government threatened to close Summerhill, charging it failed to provide some children with an adequate education as a result of allowing them the freedom to control their learning. Under a negotiated agreement Summerhill’s freedom-based educational program was preserved.
I went to one of the associated ‘progressive’ schools, St Christopher’s and Dartington Hall. Like Summerhill, lessons were not compulsory and you decided for yourself which ‘level’ to attend. If one of your parents was French and you had been brought up to be bi-lingual, there was little point in attending a first year French course – so you didn’t, you took a ‘higher’ level. If maths was falling behind, you tucked yourself into a ‘lower’ class – not ordered there by humiliating failure at examination, but out of choice – for although lessons were not compulsory, the end of term assessment in each subject was, and so the onus was on you to figure out the best way to acquire the knowledge you needed before the assessment. The end result was lessons filled with pupils who actually wanted to be there and were keen to learn – no ink pellets flicked from the ‘bolshie bored’ at the back of the room! The atmosphere was closer to University lectures than anything you might recognise as ‘school’.
The question most frequently asked is ‘but surely no one ever went to lessons if they didn’t have to?’ – but they did, bunking off class soon gets boring if you remove the element of disobedience.
In those days St Chris was primarily a boarding school, and 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for three months at a time soon gets boring when all your peers are rushing around going off to do things within the curriculum that they enjoy. I spent my first term going to Art classes in the morning and Cross-Country running in the afternoon – by the second term I was bored witless and ventured into the physics lab, lured by the prospect of watching an unfortunate teacher who had endured a terrible car accident. Being a firm believer in ‘nature healing’ – which was the official school policy in those days, ‘Liquafruita’ being the cure for absolutely everything – he had taken himself off to bed for six months until his bones had healed without the aid of splints or traction. To say he had a curious gait was an understatement – he virtually collapsed with each step like one of those wooden dogs held together with elastic that were a staple of the Christmas cracker. Riveting stuff to a 12 year old, even so, Physics bored me and I soon joined my friends in other classes. Children are great believers in rebelling against rules. Give them no rules and watch them line up dutifully.
We had no uniform – exceptional in the early 60s, when the annual traipse for the regulation uniform was an essential rite of passage. We could wear whatever we liked. The latest hottest fashions! – at the time, that meant Levi jeans dutifully soaked in a cold bath for hours on end, in a masochistic ritual, for it was essential you remained inside them during this process, and a charcoal grey V-necked Marks and Spencer’s jumper. Believe me, I endured misery, abject misery, through being refused such jeans by my Uncle. I was an enchanting specimen in brown velvet with lace collar – the mufti outfit from a previous school. Socially I was dead meat in a sea of Levi’s and charcoal grey. Children are great believers in peer pressure. Tell them they can do what they want and they all do the same thing.
What rules there were, were negotiated between the Junior and Senior School ‘officials’ (pupils) and the teachers, universally known to us by their Christian names. There were precious few rules. The two that stick in my mind were the obligatory morning run before you got a whiff of breakfast, with houseparents stationed along the mile long route to prevent us making any short cuts (remember we had precious few chances to ‘rebel’!) and the hard and fast rule that no meat was to be consumed on the premises. The school was, and still is, both devoutly Quaker and devoutly vegetarian.
Here we could be truly inventive and rebel. I can remember school-friends earnestly declaring that they were anything from Catholic to Buddhist (still a novelty at that time) there were devout Pagans, Satanists – I learnt a lot of the wide range of religious beliefs from the spirited attempts to avoid the ‘meeting’. In later life I relented and realised that the Quaker faith was actually admirably suited to my independent spirit, no middle men, no rules, no putting your faith in all too fallible humans.
But the meat rule. If you want to make your children truly self sufficient, tell them it is forbidden to eat meat. We would club together to buy a single tin of greasy, shocking pink Spam, and portion it out reverentially. We could manage to open the can without aid of can opener. We could cut the slimy slab into 24 equal portions without aid of calculator or slide rule. I swear we would have managed without a knife if we’d had too. Spam was a goal in life. Consuming Spam a weekly achievement. Dreaming of Spam. Eating Spam, even sniffing Spam, had we not managed to contribute a sous to the latest purchase. Spam, Spam, glorious Spam. Of course, if we’d been presented with a slab of Spam for lunch by the school authorities we would have complained bitterly.
Having experienced life in the asylum that the Daily Mail fear the lunatics have been given the keys to, in this new amendment, I can only say it works brilliantly. I left school when I was 13, far too young. I cannot imagine any other school than the progressive, student governed, St Chris or its siblings, that could have equipped me for self sufficiency in thought and deed so superbly in that short time.
I even have to belatedly admit, I do actually prefer vegetables to meat – and I still wear my school uniform on a daily basis….you won’t catch me in a brown velvet dress now that I’m financially independent.
Reverse psychology. It works.