Corrupting Concepts

Janet Street-Porter’s Saturday column in the i newspaper (16.9.17) was titled ‘The corrupting concept of choice’.

She was supporting Barry Smith, Great Yarmouth High School Headteacher, and his ‘draconian’ (her word) new rule book for students, and deriding parents who are ‘claiming that the new regime amounts to army-like schooling and borderline bullying’.


She says: ‘If my child was going to spend the next six years of their lives attending an institution tasked with making them employable, capable of social interaction, responsible citizens, people who appreciate fairness, tolerance and hard work, I’d be pleased if the boss had gone to the trouble of laying out guidelines about how the job was going to be carried out …. At some point in our lives (if we want to get work) we have to learn to listen, to accept authority and to face the fact that someone else might know more than we do.’


But Janet, little children learn these things pretty much from the day they are born. Children go to primary school, never mind secondary, with an already well-developed sense of fairness and young children tend to have a much better sense of tolerance than adults. Humans are born with a capacity and desire to work hard at the things that interest and motivate them, such as learning to walk and talk and find out about the world. How does treating young people like convicts teach them about tolerance and fairness?


JSP is scathing about choice and children’s rights: ‘In 2017, so many children have been corrupted by the concept of ‘choice’ …. self-expression rules – and the idea of enforcing please and thank you, not speaking unless spoken to in lessons, walking between classes in silence … (being expected to) sit up straight and look at the teacher when they are speaking … has caused outrage. It’s as if the human rights of the young are being threatened! I wonder how many of these whingers have jobs and bosses they have to report to?’


Well, Janet, how many jobs have you done where you had to walk around in silence? With a strictly-enforced identical uniform for all? It’s a little ironic that a personality who made her name by being a bit edgy and by looking and sounding so distinctive should now be such an advocate of conformity and obedience. I venture to suggest that you’d feel your rights were being threatened if you were detained against your will, or sacked, for the crime of not looking at your boss when he or she was berating you for having insufficiently shiny shoes, or for talking to your friends before a meeting started, or in the corridor walking down to the meeting room. And you must know that Ps and Qs are worthless if ruthlessly enforced – in fact, worse than useless because such authoritarianism breeds anger and resentment. Children and young people learn respect and consideration by being shown these values in action, which happens all too rarely in school. Most rules in school, and certainly those which most preoccupy the powers that be, have nothing to do with good education and everything to do with ensuring that children are cowed into obedience and conformity. This is the model which seemed appropriate and necessary when universal compulsory education was introduced. However, since then we have learned a whole lot of stuff about how we learn, how we learn best, and what learning attributes will best serve a dynamic society and economy. What we need to do now is apply some 21st century knowledge and understanding to our 19th century system. I have to tell you, Janet, that Dickensian discipline is not a 21st century reform which is going to help. I thought it was well accepted that the Nazis demonstrated pretty comprehensively the limitations of reliance on obedience, fear and conformity.


Here are some genuinely corrupting concepts:

  1. The main aim of education is to ‘make children employable’
  2. The best way to educate children is to limit their independence of thought and action as much as possible
  3. Children and young people cannot be trusted to make decisions for themselves
  4. Children won’t learn unless we bloody well make them
  5. Children won’t learn what they ‘need’ to learn unless we bloody well make them
  6. Children won’t work hard at anything unless we bloody well make them
  7. Children won’t behave well unless we bloody well make them
  8. The way to make children into model citizens is to treat them like prisoners at school
  9. The way to prepare children for active participation in a democracy is to make schools thoroughly authoritarian and curtail children’s choices and rights
  10. We can treat children disrespectfully and deny their human rights because they’re, well, only children
  11. Giving children choices, and respecting their human rights, is the same as an anarchic free-for-all
  12. Because I survived a boring, rigid, authoritarian, bullying schooling, nobody else should complain about facing the same thing


The late, great American educator John Holt called school ‘the Army for kids’. But at least you can choose whether to join the Army or not, and to leave if you hate it. Choice is not a corrupting concept, it’s the foundation of a democratic society and we should be giving our kids loads more of it in school.


Andy Mattison, 20.9.17