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IN 1960 as Neill published Summerhill, the story of a small alternative school in England. At first the book caused little stir. But then, borne on a strong, growing wave of social protest Neill’ s book took off. Although widely damned by traditional educators and school establishments, by 1965 it had become the education Bible of a large and influential part of the Western middle class.
Very few of these adoring readers ever considered starting a ‘free school’ in the countryside. What moved them was what A S Neill said about children learning from sympathetic adults free from the restrictions and oppressions of ‘the system’, as it was called.
Neill was describing his own private boarding school where less than 100 students with a handful of teachers worked out school rules through a weekly community meeting and where students were free to skip or attend classes as they wished.
When the student movement got into full swing in the late 1960s, when the anti-Vietnam protest was at its height, when the music, the dope, the communes, the religious experiments and the consensus politics blended into what was simply called ‘the movement’, Summerhill was the utopian vision of what schooling should look like.
And for a few students this vision became a reality. Free schools began to dot the countryside of the US and Canada — like monastic refuges in an American Dark Age.
For teachers and parents fighting to change state schooling powerful critics like Ivan Illich, John Holt and Marshall McLuhan offered clear signposts. Established school structures were no longer useful for middle class students, they wrote. The compulsory subjects most children were forced to take through high school, the ‘lockstep’ system of grades from kindergarten to graduation, the standardized text books which dominated course reading, the centralized exams kids were forced to take: these were barriers to real learning.
Because thousands of middle class students were also pushing their elders to design a system with more options and freedom, there was an urgency to school reform. Reformers were casting around for models of how things could be done differently. And Summerhill was not the only example they found.
Illich’s adult education school in Mexico passed on the idea that all schooling, even alternative schooling, was fatally attached to institutional thinking. The Elementary Science Project in Boston invented materials to help small kids become real experimenters, not passive observers of teacher experiments. The Leicestershire school system was legendary in North America for being an entire borough school system that was reputedly ‘child-centred’. Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s school for Maori children in New Zealand showed that children learned to read best when their vocabulary emerged from their own experience.
Eventually in this storm of educational protest schools did bend a little. The 1967 Plowden Report in England, the 1968 Hall-Dennis Report in Ontario, Canada, and countless equivalents in the US challenged established school systems. Students were offered a wider choice of subjects with more contemporary content and more stress on the fine arts.
It is easier now to see what made all this possible. Rapid school and university expansion and the availability of jobs (in short, the relative prosperity of Western capitalism in the 1960s) gave middle class youth the freedom and power to rebel against institutions that were ‘out of synch’ with their deepest hopes.
By fighting ’the system’, most middle-class young people were not demanding a far-reaching revolution. Instead they wanted schools to loosen up a bit And Western nations were able to change things fast enough to relieve the pressures and satisfy many of their angry middle-class youth. The school reform movement ground to a halt during the recession of the 1970s. Teacher trade unions found themselves battling layoffs, salary cutbacks and slashed education budgets.
Education critics were discovering the relationship between the economic system and schools was much tighter than previously thought Assisted by the recession, by pressure from the Right and by a drop in school enrolment, school policymakers succeeded in drastic budget cutbacks.
This relentless pressure to slash school spending allowed Western governments to ‘refine’ two prime features of the schools in the 70s and 80s.
The first is that schools increasingly do little serious job training. This ‘great training robbery’ is both a response to high unemployment and an acknowledgement that serious training in a ‘high tech’ society can be left to business and industry and their wings in some universities and training colleges.
The second crucial feature has been a revamping of the ‘tracking’ system. Students are streamed into different programs supposedly on the basis of student choice, aptitude and intelligence. Nonetheless those from working class and ethnic backgrounds mostly get sorted into the lower streams. There something less like education and more like entertainment, handholding and therapy is increasingly accepted by the authorities as the norm.
The result is sharpened skills and mental training for the few and therapeutic hand-holding for the majority. Ironically this latter approach is often justified as one of the humane accomplishments of60s reform. It is what Canadian critic George Martell has called ‘going nowhere at your own speed.’
Many parents knew that even though their children had more freedom in school boredom was still rampant and the challenge no greater.
When concerned parents and teachers did begin to look around for new ideas they found the sprightly and sometimes outrageous writings of earlier critics like Neill and Illich were no longer adequate. There were no great blueprints and manifestos any more. It was hard to get your bearings. In most places there was no serious organizing to fight back. And ‘successful school protest in the 1970s and 1980s has been rare. Despite this some important developments are taking place.
• Despite widespread firings and layoffs teachers are now thinking and acting like trade unionists. In the next decade this development could take different paths, but the old smug professionalism is not one of them. The most exciting possibility is that beleaguered teachers will broaden their militancy on wage issues to include matters like the school system’s shortchanging of working class students.
• In some locations where enough public money and school goodwill still exist, teachers have teamed up with parents to protest cutbacks. In Toronto, for example, this has produced a novel experiment in parent-teacher lobbying. Breaking down traditional hostilities like those between teachers and parents is one of the key testing points for the schools in the 1980s.
• There is now a greater determination amongst teachers to fight the bias of the official curriculum on race, women, labour, native peoples and Third World concerns. The critics of the 1960s focused on the need for more student choice and for better teacher-student relationships but often talked about curriculum as if it didn’t matter.
In these sober and rare battles of the 1 980s do the old education ideas of the 60s have anything to offer? Can someone who understands what the modern school is really about have time for Summerhillian dreams? It depends for what use. Thank God for thousands of teachers who behind closed doors are practising many of the 60s insights. Millions of kids are the better for it.
But have the ideas of Illich and the rest anything to say to the teacher-union battles, the parent-teacher co-operation and the curriculum fights of the 80s? Taken broadly as the ‘liberal spirit,’ they most certainly do. The notion of the dignity of students and the importance of learning starting with a student’s own experience will always be valid.
But the school system is a formidable beast and we are still a long way from either taming or liberating it.
With varying degrees of horror, schools still bore and deaden our middle-class children, dead-end our working class and ethnic children, pass on to few kids any meaningful skills and treat our teachers like machines. But at least, here and there, we have begun to move once again.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7
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