A bit more democracy

Education for Democracy

How can people in the public eye get away with lies, distortions and misrepresentations? How come Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and their ilk (let alone Donald Trump) can be defined, or celebrated, as ‘lovable rogues’ or ‘men of the people’? Why is there so little understanding of, and debate about, the privatisation of public services – the sell-off of public utilities and the creeping privatisation of the NHS and the education service? Why is local government so denuded and so little valued? Why do we not, in a much deeper and wider way, question and challenge meaningless or baseless slogans like Theresa May’s latest re-hashing of ‘One Nation’ Toryism or claims that grammar schools are great for social mobility? Why do we still have a wholly unelected second chamber of Parliament, and a hereditary monarchy?

Maybe a large part of the answer lies in the profoundly undemocratic nature of our schools. Undemocratic in that children have extremely few opportunities to make choices for themselves and to participate in democratic discussion and decision-making; and undemocratic in that preparation for active citizenship plays virtually no part in the curriculum, or certainly that part of the curriculum which is deemed important and valuable.

Mass schooling developed in a pre-democratic age and still bears the print of a system designed to produce compliant low-grade workers for factories and offices, and still reflects an attitude of profound distrust of children. It is a rigidly authoritarian system (indeed, totalitarian in many ways) and has become increasingly monolithic in the era of a National Curriculum and high-stakes national testing under the watchful eye of Big-Brother-Ofsted.

Back in the early 1960s, Paul Goodman wrote: ‘It is in the schools and from the mass media, rather than at home or from their friends, that the mass of our citizens learn that life is inevitably routine, depersonalised, venally graded; that it is best to toe the line and shut up; that there is no place for spontaneity, free spirit. This is education, miseducation, socialising to the norms and regimenting to the national ‘needs’ …. At least in the middle class, that fills the colleges, this technique of socialisation is unerring, and the result is a generation not notable for self-confidence, determination, initiative or ingenuous idealism. It is a result unique in history: an elite that has imposed on itself a morale fit for slaves.’

We do seem to be unable to defend ourselves adequately against the lure of hero-worship of vacuous celebrities; of over-simplified, disingenuous or downright false representations in the media; or of the notion that monetary values trump (pun intended) all others; above all, we are prey to terrible feelings of helplessness and inertia in the face of the most important challenges we face: climate change, war and conflict, poverty, corporate power, wealth distribution …. The expenses scandal, the banking crisis, the Snowden leaks, the Panama Papers: each generate days, weeks, months of ‘news’, but do the powers that be feel compelled by the force of public pressure to make much real change?

There are massive constraints on any individual teacher, school or group of schools in the current system. However, any step in the right direction makes things better, and I believe that Let’s Make it Better is a great school improvement slogan; and changes giving (returning might be a better phrase) rights and responsibilities to children will not result in lower test scores.

Some proposals:

1. Acknowledge children’s rights

Adults can be trusted to, for example, leave a cinema or concert hall in an orderly fashion at the end of a show, but children need to wait to be told exactly when, and in what order, to be dismissed (note the verb) after a school assembly. Actually, this is false. Trust me, try it. We impose incredibly strict rules regarding children’s movements, appearance and communication in schools and then devote (in fact, waste) extraordinary amounts of time enforcing them (Good heavens, are those proper black leather shoes, or plastic trainers pretending to look the same? Thank goodness we prevented a major social breakdown by spotting that!!) Let’s start by assuming that children should have the same rights as adults in these respects. Presumably there are no Headteachers who expect teachers to wait in silence before the start of a staff meeting (but please let me know if there are), so let’s give children the same rights before an assembly. They can stop talking and listen; trust me, try it. Equally, it seems to me unlikely that teachers have to line up outside the staff room (but if you know differently …) but we expect children to line up dozens of times a week. Really, they can manage without. Trust me, try it. Let’s question exactly why we impose a school uniform and how precisely defined this needs to be – and PLEASE, no pretending that it’s to do with children taking pride in their school. There really are better and more likely ways of engendering pride than that. And if it really seems necessary to compel children to wear blazers, let’s have the staff wearing them too, because whatever the justification, why wouldn’t it apply to adults too?

2. Give children choices and respect these

With the Ofsted wolf prowling outside the door, you may not feel ready to abandon teacher-directed learning and adult-directed schools entirely, but children can still be empowered by being given more choices and, lo, schools can be better places because of it. As well matters of lining up, sitting in silence etc, why not try letting children choose how and where they sit (or lie) to read, or write? Or what they write with? At a different level of moral and intellectual complexity, children can and do wrestle with the problems they come across – how to deal with anti-social behaviour and unkindness, how to look cool, how to cope with not understanding a lesson – and can and do make humane, sensible and effective decisions if given the opportunity to do so together. School Councils on the whole are a poor substitute for everybody being able to participate in democratic problem-solving. And it may be that handing over the whole school budget to children to manage may be a step too far, but some small element of budget management helps participants learn about the give and take of democratic decision-making as well as financial skills. Above all, perhaps, if learners are able to make choices about what they study and how and when they study it, they tend to be well-motivated and successful, and can bring the confidence and motivation that ensues to bear when learning is more difficult and teacher-directed.

3. Value and foster curiosity, independence and self-managed learning

‘The destruction of uninterrupted time is a major weapon of mass instruction. Schools are a rat’s maze of frantic activity …. Personal time is the only time we have in which to build theories, test hypotheses of our own, and speculate how the bits of information our senses gather might be connected.’ (John Taylor Gatto)
‘Once you have learned to ask questions – relevant and appropriate and substantial – you have learned how to learn and no-one can keep you from learning whatever it is you need to know.’ (Postman and Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity¬).
Or, as Tolstoy put it: ‘The only real object of education is to leave a person in the condition of continually asking questions’.
‘Schools all too often teach students how to be taught rather than how to learn for themselves.’ (Clive Harber – Democratic Education)
‘The new forced schooling octopus taught anyone unable to escape its tentacles that inert knowledge – memorising the dots – is the gold standard of intellectual achievement. Not connecting the dots. It set out to create a reflexive obedience to official directions as opposed to accepting responsibility for one’s own learning.’ (John Taylor Gatto)

4. Institute a new subject: Democracy

‘It is more important to have a proper awareness of yourself and your place in the world than it is to be able to do quadratic equations. Yet we seem to think that schools should teach quadratic equations in every available moment, and the rest can be left to look after itself.’ (David Gribble)
The Democracy curriculum could include: participation in democratic discussion and decision-making (probably mostly at the level of a class meeting); the historical development of democratic institutions and rights in our society and elsewhere; the operation of local and national government; the role of the judiciary and the press; critical study of print, visual and online media; equality issues ….
‘There is no sane reason why all 8-year-olds must learn to define assonance and onomatopoeia, but it keeps classes too busy to talk about anything more important.’ (Terry Wrigley, Another School is Possible)

The education system does not readily acknowledge a responsibility for preparing young people for all the elements of active democratic citizenship, but it’s high time it did. And any little step forward is a step in the right direction: let’s trust children a little more, respect their choices a little bit more, and make our schools a little bit more democratic.