So, what's wrong with school?

Lessons in democracy

In the UK budget last week, George Osborne announced that all schools in England would be forced to become academies. What does this tell us about democracy? That a party that received votes from 24% of registered voters, but with a majority in the house, want to force upon schools, parents and children something that was not in their manifesto.

Parents, teachers (and of course, pupils) will not be able to object, parents will not be on the board of governors (because we need professional ideologues in that job) and teacher’s contracts will be “negotiable.” Sponsors choose the majority of those on the governing body of academies already (1) eliminating any pretence of democracy.

The academy report card is hardly glorious. In 2014 half the schools in one large academy chain were failing. (2)
This model is ripe for corruption, with little true oversight. One academy chain paid consultancy fees of £800,000 over 2 years to companies that the sponsors and trustees had a financial interest in.(3) Public money is being used to line the pockets of dodgy folk who see children’s education as a way to make a quick buck. Head teachers’ salaries are also soaring in academies and “free” schools.(4)

There is a possibility with academies to ditch the stifling National Curriculum and offer something else, but parental choice (never pupil choice) is a fallacy. (see The Myth of Parental Choice) When a leading arms manufacturer is running a school, we have to question the ethos that will be promoted. (5)

Measurement can become the problem. “Good” schools get “good” exam results. “Good” teachers have students with “good” exam results. But when 4 out of 5 of the exam successes going to university have mental health problems (6), with one third contemplating suicide, what exactly have our “good” schools produced?

Academisation is, of course, one step on the way to total privatization of education. Removing schools from local authority control destroys local democratic accountability. One person (Secretary of State for Education) becomes the dictator of all schools with regional commissioners overseeing thousands of schools (7), if all become academies. Pupil money flows to private organisations, who can make a profit out of warehousing kids, reduced to economic generation units in the industrial model. Public money goes to private hands to redefine children.

Each pupil will have a price tag/ profit tag on their head. Accountability becomes, instead, accounting. “How can we save money?” becomes how can individuals make more profit from imprisoning children against their will, inflicting upon them something neither they, their parents or even teachers have chosen

All mainstream schools are undemocratic – pupils have no say, parents have limited say, teachers too do not play a major role in decisions in most schools (they may be able to decide who to punish)

Maybe, after all, it is a model of the type of democracy we have – the illusion of having a say in all aspects of your life by being allowed to put a cross on a paper every 5 years. In the UK, where only 24% of the electorate voted Tory, this is hardly the will of the majority. So schools may be a perfect preparation for life in a democratic society but it doesn’t have to be like this or limit our view of the possible in this way. Democratic schools like Summerhill (8), where the rules and decisions are taken jointly between staff and students, point the way towards what true democracy can look like. It isn’t braying men in suits in an antique “house” inflicting their toxic ideology on us all.

Posted on twitter   @McewenB   , a lesson for us all:


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Children should have a right to resist education

Janusz Korczac, a Polish-Jewish paediatrician ran an orphanage for Jewish children in the Warsaw ghetto during the second world war. In his diaries and books he listed the rights he believed children should have. Many have made their way into conventions such as United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) with one notable exception. Children, he said, should have the right to resist education that conflicts with their own beliefs.
Concerns worldwide are with a right to education, rather than rights in education and it is never matched with a right to resist or refuse that education if it is inappropriate, damaging, remiss or just plain boring. Children have no right to demand an education that better suits them.

Adults can choose not to exercise their human rights, but children cannot. In fact the right to an education is really a duty on parents to ensure their children receive an education and a duty on children to access whatever education they are told to.

The rights of children are limited by the concept of their best interests as decided by adults. The UNCRC states that children’s wishes should be taken into account in all decisions that affect them. Truants and school-refusers are stating clearly and categorically that they do not want to be in school. We need to respect the statement these children are making.

Children have no say in whether they go to school, which school they are forced to attend, what curriculum they are made to study while there, who teaches them and what educational and behavioural policies are inflicted on them.

If schools were places where children wanted to be, where they felt safe and cared for, and had their needs met then truancy and school-refusal would not be a problem. When truancy is criminalised and refusal is medicalised the blame is shifted. Schools are let off the hook as the problem is seen as feckless parents and mentally ill children.

By naming refusal to go as “school phobia” it creates a psychiatric condition to be treated. Children’s voices are silenced and ignored, their distress dismissed. This labels children saying NO to school as having a medical condition in the same way that drapetomania was a mental illness exclusive to slaves who showed an “irrational” desire to run away. Similarly, dissidents in Soviet Russia were hospitalized as insane.

A phobia is an irrational fear. Although children may be made ill and driven mad by school, school-refusal is not an illness or madness. To refuse to enter a crocodile pit is not crocophobia, but discretion as the better part of valour. To refuse to go to a prison when you have committed no wrong is not prison-phobia.

The treatment (for if it is a disease then it must have treatment) is to send refusers back to school as soon as possible. Accounts of this treatment are harrowing and tantamount to child abuse. They aim to break the child or drug them into submission and total denial of their own needs. Giving children the right to resist and refuse education would ensure that schools and parents listen to the needs and wishes of children and make a more humane world for us all.

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I am an extremist


5th July 2015

Proposed ‘extremism’ legislation should terrify us all. David Cameron said in May:”
“For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.” We should all worry how the thought police are going to define extremism.

“Asserting our system of values” (as Cameron stated on Radio 4) is, of course, fascism. Being “intolerant of intolerance”, while being a quirky paradoxical sound bite, stinks of Orwellian Newspeak and redefining words. If obeying the law is not enough, the “intolerance” can be applied in a partisan way.

Our unjust wars are legitimised and violence by the other is labelled terrorism. The US government set up research groups to come up with a definition of terrorism that could exclude their own violent expansionism. Easy – states cannot be terrorists because they have a legitimacy. That is why there is concern about the term Islamic State – oh dear, if it is a state it can’t be terrorism. Back to using ISIS or ISIL or something now that the idea it is Islamic is firmly rooted in people’s minds.

So what are these British values?
Democracy? – the will of the majority? Well, 24% of the electorate voted Tory, yet we have an unjust extremist government thrust upon us. I’m against that. I’d prefer a proportional system where every vote counted. A bit extremist of me. What if the majority of the population don’t want democracy?

Rule of law? Well, I’m critical of a legal system that fails to prosecute: bankers who destroyed our economy; ‘law enforcers’ who kill prisoners in custody, abusers of power and the rich and powerful, while sending a young ‘rioter’ who stole a packet of crisps to jail for 4 years. Cuts to legal aid mean justice for the poor under the law is compromised further. I’m not convinced – the rule of law seems to be one rule for the rich and another for the poor. I’m against that too.

Individual liberty? Yes, I am in favour of that in a way that this proposed legislation seems to attack. Freedom of thought? Freedom of expression? Surely they are an intrinsic part of individual liberty that is attacked by this. Again our language is being redefined. We have freedom of speech so long as you, or your child in school, does not say anything against the government or contrary to “British values”. How is that any different from the dictatorships we justify invading?

Mutual respect? I want to stand alongside my Muslim friends and neighbours and proclaim that I am an extremist. It is safer, at the moment, for me – a white Westerner of no specific religion, than it would be for them, That is how fair and just our society has become. Of course Muslim people are fleeing the persecution they can see coming here.

Schools will be the thought police in this scenario – your children utter innocent statements and the stasi turn up to interview you and put your children on the at risk of radicalisation list. Your daughter wears a headscarf? Oh dear they will have to unradicalise her with exposure to page 3. Your son goes to the mosque? – maybe he is being radicalised there so they will close the mosque and re-educate your son.

Here are some questions asked of primary children in Waltham Forest :

“The survey asks children as young as nine living in Waltham Forest, east London, detailed questions about their beliefs and poses several leading statements for them to assess, concerning the strength of their feelings and how far they might go to defend their religion.

They include: “Religious books are to be understood word for word”, “I believe my religion is the only correct one”, “God has a purpose for me” and “I would do what a grown up told me to do even if it seemed odd to me”.”

Doing as an adult tells you is extreme in school? Such as filling out a stupid questionnaire when asked to?

First they came for the Muslims and I did not speak out because I was not a Muslim. Then we were all called extremist for protesting.

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Cheating and dishonesty in schools

15th June 2015

An article in today’s Guardian indicates the extent of cheating in schools and universities. This is not a new phenomenon. As I wrote in my book (Reason 33. Schools promote dishonesty), dishonesty and cheating occur at all levels and are part of the culture. Schools and teachers cheat and collude with students to cheat as the stakes for all are set so high and are dependent on a young person ticking enough boxes. League tables. performance-related pay and achievement awards for schools all put pressure on to get the grades. Ofsted reports are also often a fictional representation of what actually happens. At a nearby college Ofsted visited during A level mock week when no lessons were taught and all students were off site. Specially selected students were bused to speak to inspectors. In one adult class, where only 5 out of 13 had passed the first assessment, 4 of the “successes” were told to talk to the inspectors about their experience.

In a culture of dishonesty. lying and cheating to survive or gain advantage becomes acceptable. In a punishment based system (with reward as a shade of punishment) young people learn to do whatever they can get a way with.

The problem is not that students cheat, but that the pieces of paper are seen to count for more than any other criteria in the job market and in deciding whether someone is a success or a failure in life. The pursuit of qualifications, regardless of their intrinsic worth or the knowledge they may represent, contaminates education systems world wide. The incentive and rewards of cheating outweigh the risks of getting caught.

Schools exist to create winners and losers, successes and failures to feed into the machine. Dishonesty is not a problem in this scenario. We need human beings, honest,insightful humans, to navigate our way out of the mess that has been created by this way of being.

See Book Extract 33. Schools promote dishonesty

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School makes teachers sick

Radio 4 file on 4  Sick of School

I wrote about this in my book, how teachers are overwhelmed and undermined, stressed and distressed, falling sick and becoming absent with more leaving than ever before, now standing at 4,000 leaving the profession every month (one in 12)

In an online survey of 3,500 teachers in UK the NASUWT found 68% seriously considered quitting and 48% had visited a doctor in the last 12 months for physical or mental issues related to their work.

Nigel Utton, by all accounts a brilliant head, quit in  2014:

The measurement and testing of special educational needs pupils is “disgusting”, a head teacher has said. Nigel Utton, head of Bromstone Primary School in Kent said he had decided “enough is enough” and he would be leaving his job.29 Apr 2014 He argues that schools are about statistics and data and not about children.

Schools are inhuman places with added burdens of bureaucracy and “accountability”. Those taught by stressed, distressed teachers are also damaged. Humans need to come before the numbers generated to satisfy pointless targets.

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So, what’s wrong with maths teaching?

6th February 2015

Recent announcements from Nicky Morgan, Education Secretary, include ensuring all children know their times tables up to 12 by age 11, with schools being penalised if all children do not pass tests in them. Yet when quizzed on air, she refused to answer maths questions under duress. What if children refuse to answer questions because of the stress of the test? And for those schools which fail to get all their students through this:
Headteacher Bernard Trafford, in The Journal asks:
“well, what will happen? Ah, I know. The primary school will be placed in special measures, the head sacked, and the school will become an academy.What if it’s already an academy? The Department for Education didn’t tackle that question. The maths doesn’t add up.
Times tables are not maths, though they can be useful, but in a world where everyone has a calculator on their phone or computer, this focus on the mechanics of calculation is backward-looking, tedious and will turn many off the glory of true maths for life, as when high stakes tests are given, that become the main focus of teaching.
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers said:
“Our schools need to be accountable, but the current system stifles creativity, leads to ‘teaching to the test’ and does not promote sustainable improvements in education,” .

Is there a better way to do maths, a better way to learn and be inspired by maths?
ProfessorJo Boaler, never learned her times tables. She was educated in that glorious time when understanding numbers in a context was more important. My son never memorised them either but could, like Prof Boaler, tell you the correct answer pretty quickly. When I asked him how he did it he replied “I just learned the fundamental interconnectedness of the individual numbers and extrapolated it onto a larger scale.” It seemed to work.
In 1964 The Nuffield Foundation developed an approach to primary mathematics which had the aim “I do and I understand.” It enabled a generation of kids to get to grips with the world of maths in a fun and accessible way. Here is what their website says about what happened to their 5 – 11 approach:
The publications sold extremely well over a long period. The first National Curriculum featured many of the mathematical ideas explored and tested by Nuffield Maths 5/11. However high-stakes testing and later the national numeracy strategy brought about a marked change in classroom priorities and practice. The Nuffield slogan: ‘I do – and I understand’ faded into history.

Michael Gove implemented changes to the primary maths curriculum to over burden young minds even more, even forcing those who “fail” GCSE maths at age 16 to keep re-sitting it until they pass or reach age 18. Jo Boaler argues that the idea that some people are good at maths and others aren’t, hinders many from grasping and enjoying maths. Those that are labelled failures see themselves as incapable.
In Anchor Maths, Leslie A Hart tells us that maths needs to be practical, investigative and projective (involved in planning). In the average classroom: “Early arithmetic focuses on “naked” numbers (numbers on their own and not in any context), operations and algorithms. That can seem very dull and useless pretty quickly. Students spend many hours putting numbers on paper but there is no outcome. Nothing happens…apart from getting a grade. This diminishes both math and science.”

Conrad Wolfram argues that we do it all wrong – focussing on hand calculating (when computers do that so much better and quicker than we do) and losing sight of the many real world uses of maths, of concepts and practicalities that would make maths more relevant, creative and fun.

What stops schools taking up any of these approaches? The tyranny of exams and backward looking politicians. The desire to climb up international tables and compete with nations where rote learning increases marks on exams but stifles minds. “All together now Six times Seven equals something or other.”

For more on this see

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Economic Eugenics in the UK

30th December 2014

Staks Rosch coined the phrase “economic eugenics” in 2011 to refer to policies that aim to kill all poor people.1 This is being done by economic means, all seeming less messy than piles of bodies on the floor of gas chambers but just as lethal. Terms such as “welfare scroungers” have echoes of how Nazis described those they considered sub-human: Jewish people were called Weltparasit – world parasites. Similar language is used to describe those unable to find work or unable to work through ill health. Social cleansing of poor people out of cities into ghettos through housing benefit changes, also has resonances of fascism targeting those deemed sub-human.

This eugenics imprisons many in degrading poverty, with people unable to feed themselves, keep warm or maintain basic human dignities. Jobcentres now seem to have changed their remit from helping people find suitable jobs that make them better off, to a weapon to punish the poor with sanctioning targets2 and an aim to reduce the welfare budget, whatever the outcome for the human beings pushed into absolute poverty. The primary meaning of “welfare” refers to the health, happiness, prosperity and wellbeing of a person or group. It is not a dirty word. Everyone’s “welfare” is served when we treat each other with humanity.
Those who are sick are deemed by ATOS to be fit for work after a brief tick-box “assessment” by strangers. Jobcentre staff then say the sick person is not looking for work or is not available for work and stop all money. GPs who know their patients best, have limited power to intervene.

The biggest problem is the defining of human worth by the ability to sell our labour on the market. If we can’t, we are deemed worthless and may as well die. Those who are unable to work through mental or physical health limitation are not seen as fully human by a system that only counts in pounds not people. The unpaid work upon which every society depends (raising children, caring for relatives and friends, unpaid charitable and social work) is also invisible because it doesn’t show up in GDP.

But growth can be toxic. One of our biggest exports is arms, sold to anyone who will buy. We should not be proud of an economy based on death. John Major, when he was Prime Minister, said we should understand a little less and condemn a little more. That condemning has stretched beyond crime to condemning to destitution all those our society has no use for. What we need is more understanding of the human lives blighted by an economic system based on greed and not need.

Suicides increase in economic hard times, but each death of a claimant saves the country money. Those who only look to the bottom line see positives instead of the misery they have induced. Cuts in services to help those suffering as a result of job loss or from the extreme mental and physical stress of poverty, merely make such deaths more likely.3
It has been known for decades that the poor die younger than the wealthy, and that in greatly divided societies like our own, the life expectancy of all is reduced. The accountants see a reduction in those living to the ever-increasing pension age while those who need to claim benefits to exist are less likely to get there. But our government wants to put the onus on health professionals to tackle inequalities that are caused by fiscal policies.4 Giving people nutrition advice when they can’t afford to buy food is mere victim-blaming. Referrals of sick people to employment advice when there are no suitable jobs further victimises.

We need a radical rethink. The Green Party policy of a citizen’s income,5 where each person gets enough for basic living and earnings are on top of that, would be a great step towards a more compassionate society. No-one is promising full employment, but there is a huge amount of work to be done. By allowing people time to do what needs doing – creating communities where we all want to live and valuing unpaid work – we can create a fairer and more humane society. To those who say we cannot afford to care, I would argue that we cannot afford not to.

Jessica Mwanzia is the author of So, what’s wrong with school? 125 reasons not to send your kids

References: accessed 2nd August 2013. He is primarily referring to the situation in the USA
see John Domokos and Patrick Wintour (Tuesday 26 March 2013) Hodge demands explanation for DWP denial of jobcentre sanctions targets The Guardian
Sarah Bosely (Tuesday 14 August 2012) Rise in suicides blamed on impact of recession
The Guardian
BBC news (18 March 2013) NHS told to do more to ‘reduce health inequalities’

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