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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