Friday, 8 November 2013
The baleful influence of John Holt
I received an email last night, reproaching me for singling out Leslie Barson as somebody who would like to see the abolition of compulsory education in this country. It was pointed out that many of the better known figures in the British home educating scene share her feelings about this. This is of course quite true and it makes one wonder how many more of John Holt’s stranger views are held by modern home educators in this country. Voting at the age of three? Four year-olds being allowed to drive cars on the roads? Five year-olds injecting heroin? Abolishing the age of consent and legalising paedophilia? But let us focus today upon just one of Holt’s key ideas; that children should be free to abandon education and start work whenever they feel ready to do so. It is this which Leslie Barson thinks a good idea and she is not alone.
Something to bear in mind here is that well-meaning and good-hearted people tend to assume that everybody else is like them. The home educators who would like to see the end of compulsory education are thinking in terms of parents taking responsibility for their children’s education and not being forced into it by the state. It is a noble vision, but one which history teaches us would have the direst consequences for children. Let’s look both at the past and present to see what the likely consequence would be if there was no compulsion to ensure that our children received an education. Compulsory education in this country came into force in 1880 and there was enormous opposition to it from parents. During the following decade, prosecution of parents for their children’s non-attendance at school was the commonest offence in this country, apart from drunkenness. There were over a 100,000 cases a year. These were not home educating parents who resented the state trying to usurp parental authority. They were mothers and fathers who wanted their small children to go to work and earn money. They were driven by economic necessity, rather than a philosophy of education.
More recently, before the school leaving age was raised to 16 in 1972, many working class children at grammar schools were forced to leave school before taking their GCEs, because their parents wanted them to get jobs. An awful lot of children were thus deprived of the chance to go into higher education. This still happens today. I know of a number of cases of children who have left school with good GCSEs and want to attend sixth form or college. Their parents tell them that they can’t afford to keep supporting them and so the children have to get jobs instead. Raising the school leaving age to 18 will rescue some of these children and enable them to go on to university if they wish. Compulsory education protects these young people and allows them to fulfill their potential.
The problem is that many home educating parents come from comfortable, middle class backgrounds and simply don’t know how things work in the real, ordinary world. If compulsory education was abolished and parents were not forced to send their children to school, many would not bother at all about their children’s education. Their only concern would be how soon they could have another wage coming into the house, so that they could cope with the next electricity bill. Lower the school leaving age to 14 and masses of working class children will be forced to drop out of school for this reason. Ideas like this will generally benefit the middle classes and penalise horribly children from working class homes. Raise the school leaving age to 18 and this will have the opposite effect.
I hope to look in future posts about which other of John Holt’s ideas might be popular among home educators today. I have an idea that examining this question might shed light upon the frantic reluctance of some of these types to allow anybody from the local authority into their homes! Those who would abolish compulsory education and allow eight and nine year-olds to work in the fields again, as they did before 1880, are clearly not overly committed to the welfare of young children; to put the case mildly.
I have written extensively on this question of compulsory education and the effect that it has had upon improving the lot of working class children. In particular, the introduction of compulsory education in the late 19th century is covered in Chapter 1 of Elective Home Education in the UK, Trentham Books 2010. The business about working class children being compelled to leave at 15, before sitting their GCEs, is treated in detail in The Best Days of our Lives; School Life in Post-War Britain, The History press 2013.