A Charter for Unfree Children

MARTIN DANIEL was born in 1932 in Leeds. He was at Oxford and Manchester Universities and has since been teaching at a technical college near London and a grammar school in East Anglia. He has three children.

Submitted by Reddebrek on September 5, 2016

AMONG PHILOSOPHERS IT IS A COMMONPLACE that words get in the way of accurate thought. Take for instance the verb "to teach". It generally appears in a sentence preceded by a subject (the teacher) and followed by an indirect and a direct object (the pupil and the information taught). This syntax seems to imply that a particular piece of information is fed by an active teacher into a passive student.

Now you will already be aware that this is misleading; that in fact this picture of "teaching" is merely a picture of its superficial appearance — it is what the situation looks like, say, to a photographer or a naturalistic painter. In reality, teaching in this sense simply does not occur at all; the child is not a receptacle; teaching presupposes learning; and we learn in a proportion that must be something like direct to our interest, intelligence and memory.

So far this reads, I have no doubt, like a series of truisms such as you might expect to hear in any post-graduate lecture on the philosophy of education. But the point is that, however obvious all this seems to you and me, there are many (they may even be the majority) who do look on teaching as a simple business of filling a receptacle, and that surprisingly enough most of the rest of us (who imagine we think more clearly than that) fall sometimes into this same mistake.

Most of the rest of us, I said. For what would follow if the photographic view of education were correct? The state of the pupils' receptivity and their emotional attitude to learning would be of no account; all that would matter would be that the information fed into them should be useful or civilizing or both. Education, regardless of teacher or pupil, would be in itself good. Now is not this exactly what we most of us automatically assume? It is in fact one of the basic tenets of our culture. Since education is good, more of it must be better. And being good, it is a right, which must be granted to those who ask for it. It is not surprising that the parents and educational authorities are continually seeking its extension to older and still older pupils. Three years ago the Crowther Report recommended the raising of the school leaving age from 15 to 16, as provided for in the Education Act of 1944. It hasn't happened yet, but it will.

Teachers, of course, have a more practical attitude. The basic philosophy of education as held by most of them is that "if you keep throwing mud at a wall, in the end some of it sticks." In other words, pupils are indeed just like receptacles, though with this proviso: that they are sieve-like receptacles, so that most of the information they are told sinks rapidly out of reach, and what remains tends to be irrelevant.

Nonetheless, the underlying assumption is the same. And to it is added one even less rational: that it is morally improving to learn, even to learn something intrinsically useless. The mind, it is held, is like a lead pencil; it can be sharpened on any old knife. With educational psychologists this is an unpopular view nowadays. But it is still not uncommon among teachers and parents, and is often advanced in conversation as a defence of apparently purposeless pieces of teaching. One hears it particularly often in this form: "They've got to do a lot of disagreeable things when they grow up; and the sooner they learn this, the better." Of course, one's memory is invaluable; and it can be improved by exercise. But it is surprising how reluctant people are to admit that to exercise memory by learning something useful rather than something useless is a double good. And has anyone ever investigated the long-term effects of learning information which the learner resists? It is quite possible that it may actually be harmful, and where there is such a possibility it is vital to discover the truth of the matter.

Education, then, is felt with all the fanatical conviction of a superstition to be good in itself. "Good educational facilities," said the Crowther Report, "once provided, are not left unused." It did not cross the minds of its writers to ask how much knowledge it retained, whether it is put to any use, and whether its use brings profit in people's work or leisure. To the writers of the Report such questions are, I suppose, absurd; there is only one conceivable answer to them. For otherwise, the very foundations of our educational system would be called in question.

The Report did not of course state this superstition in so many words. Indeed, it put forward a long and reasonably argued case in favour of raising the school-leaving age. There is at present, it said, a waste of talent, which our increasingly complex society, requiring more and more skilled and fewer and fewer unskilled workers, cannot afford. The only way to ensure that the waste is stopped is by a compulsory increase of education. The part-time system, even with day-release, is not an efficient substitute for full-time education. The number of Secondary Modern pupils staying voluntarily after the age of 15 is increasing, but may be dependent on economic conditions, which may well alter. The demand for more educated and more deeply educated workers is growing. And there is a general need for secondary education to extend throughout the "difficult and important period of adolescence." All this is eminently reasonable, provided one assumes one thing: that the waste of talent can be remedied by one more year of compulsory education. That it is in fact an increase in the quantity and not in the quality of education that is wanted.

Why should one think that an increase in the quantity of education will not benefit our children? Well, let us be quite clear about the teaching situation in the average school. There is no question of having 30 ardent and inquisitive children whose only conscious wish is to acquire learning and nobility at all costs. In fact most children simply do not want to learn. They have far more interesting things to do and think about. Whatever one's views on A. S. Neill's experiments in education, he has certainly demonstrated that children, given absolute freedom to learn or not to learn, will play away much of their time, at least between 12 and 15. The fact that ours is a compulsory system of education is clear evidence for this. And let us be quite clear about it; compulsion implies the use of force.

Of course, sometimes children are interested, even for quite long periods, in what is being taught them. If they are Grammar School pupils they are assumed to have the intelligence without which interest in the more academic subjects is difficult or impossible. But even in a Grammar School it is practically never 35 out of 35 who are interested; and you can't interest even some of the children all of the time.

The fact that they are not interested is often disguised even from them by good teaching technique. Even when this fails, respect for their teacher may keep them at least apparently attentive.

Respect seems almost a meaningless word after being used in so many different emotional contexts. Respect for a teacher, however, is normally of the sort we term "a healthy respect", that is to say the respect of the mouse for the cat. The less intelligent the children are, the more likely they are to be consciously hostile to learning; and then the teacher (told "You must teach") can only tell his class "You must learn", and use compulsion.

We have then the classic teaching situation: about 40 children who are not interested in the subject they are supposed to be learning, who do not see the point of it, and who are in their own eyes just filling in time until they get to 15 and can leave school to earn some money; who none the less write and listen, and produce neat and legible exercise books suitable for the impressing of inspectors, parents and prospective employers; who are capable of reading most things that are not actually informative, even though they do not often trouble to do so; and who are held in an apparent state of docility and keenness by a mixture of suggestion, persuasion, blackmail, vague threats of the anger of their teachers and parents, and crystal clear threats of imminent punishment.

While subjects remain as divorced from the taste and understanding of Secondary Modern pupils as they usually are at present, nothing can be done about this. On page 33 of the Crowther Report it is suggested that girls in their final years at school should be treated not as children but as young adults. This is excellent. But it is not suggested how teachers can achieve this better than they are doing already. When adults come to learn, they come willingly and there is no hostility in the classroom atmosphere. But the very facts of compulsion and a resented curriculum keep pupils in the same old childish situation even when they are 16 or 17.

We still of course define education in the traditional way as the learning of good English, mathematics, the basic stages of a foreign language, and facts about geography, history and so on, without which (obviously) nothing whatever can be said about these subjects, as well as the more obviously pleasurable subjects of art, handicrafts, sport and the rest. The difficulty is that, on the whole, the less intelligent a child is, the less capable he is of doing well enough even to satisfy himself in any of these subjects. Intelligence is in fact a reasonably good measure of a child's capacity to profit from education. It is often said that subjects can be taught by less academic methods, as if an unintelligent child could grasp things as well as an intelligent one of only a different approach was used. The suggestion is manifest nonsense. The old academic ways of teaching are used because they communicate the most information in the shortest time. Any other method will either communicate less information or serve a different purpose. It is therefore easy to understand why teachers are reluctant to discard the old methods. To do so would mean discarding education itself, as they understand it. So situations are reached like that in a Secondary Modern School form of which I was told; where the same English syllabus was followed in four successive years, and the children knew less of it at the end of each year than they had at the end of the preceding one. "Dreadful!" you will cry; "a shocking waste of time! " And you will be right. "They should have been given a less academic approach." Right again. "Then they would have learned more." Probably right again, but not for the obvious reason. For if a different method achieves better results even according to the orthodox way of measuring results, that is a by-product due to more interest and co-operation having been aroused in the children. In general a different purpose will have been served.

A change in the object of education, however, was not the Report's intention. Its authors state that one of their reasons for wanting the leaving age raised is that better qualified and more deeply educated workers are required these days. At least a part therefore of the additional time will be spent giving more of the present sort of teaching. This indeed is implied elsewhere, when the Report approves (p. 113) of teaching more foreign languages, which are extremely academic.

I question, by the way, the assumption behind this proposal. Those who show signs of increasing their intellectual attainment should of course stay on at school after 15; and they often do already. But it is a fallacy to think that it necessarily can be increased by stopping at school, or that an increase would necessarily be great enough to be worthwhile. In any case, does the employers' demand for more qualifications mean that they want more training or more intelligence? If training, one would expect this to be done best by the employers themselves. If intelligence, this cannot be raised, at least by present methods of education.

Of course, the Report did state (p. 94) that girls and boys in the lower streams of the Secondary Modern should be taught by methods which "are much less formal and much more closely related to exploration than exposition … Pupils will nearly always prefer 'I see' to "I understand'." This does not sound like the change in the object of education that I was looking for, if only because this sort of thing has been said so often before and has clearly been insufficient to alter the situation.

Something more concrete is suggested for the final year only — that is, for the fifteen-year-olds who will be staying on at school instead of going out to work. They should be given courses in citizenship, ethics, politics, philosophy and religion. "The additional year should offer new and challenging courses and not be simply a continuation of what has gone before. These should be so devised that they satisfy the adolescent's intensified interest in the real world and recognize his rapidly growing need for independence." And the Report pointed anxiously to the rising tide of delinquency and the disappearance of the old morality.

Yet the Report itself showed that delinquency is higher among 13-year-olds than among 15-year-olds who have just left school, and highest of all among 14-year-olds (who are in their last year at school). Moreover, before the school-leaving age was last raised to 15 (in 1947), the 13-year-olds (then in their last year at school) were the most delinquent. Nor did the rate among them drop after the raising of the age (except briefly between 1953 and 1957). If one really wanted to reduce delinquency, it would seem more logical to reduce the school-leaving age than to raise it.

The Report had no explanation to give. It merely suggested that the greater amount of spare time possessed by school-children gives them more opportunity to be delinquent. This does not explain why the 14-year-olds should be more anti-social than the 13-year-olds, nor what produces the inclination. It is possible to conclude that the fact of being in one's last year at school, treated as a child but longing to be an adult, is frustrating enough to dispose adolescents to delinquency, and that the raising of the leaving age was at least one of the causes for the increase in it which is still continuing. It is ridiculous to discount this suggestion simply because it contradicts what we should like to believe.

In spite of this, the Report's ambitious courses in citizenship and the rest might be thought likely to have some effect. But schools have always tried to give some moral instruction. Where they have supported the outlook of adult society, or that section of it to which the children belonged, they have been often reasonably successful; but where they have opposed things that are normally approved by society, such as smoking or swearing, they have at most driven them underground. I have never heard anyone suggest that he has given up smoking because his schoolmaster persuaded him it was wrong. This suggests that the methods of indoctrination used by schools have no effect. So, when the Report asks if it is too much to hope that keeping teenagers at school another year might conceivably enable their teachers to give them, for example in the field of sex, a "well-understood knowledge of what is right and what is wrong", we can reply quite firmly: Yes, it is too much to hope.*

*In any case the subject is a dangerous one. Honest discussion of it, although the only effective method, is likely to reveal that right and wrong are matters of opinion.

Another hope is that the schools may counter the influence of the mass media by giving an inkling of culture. If this is to be done in the old way and by the old methods, its effectiveness will again be negligible. It is one of the commonest results of our present educational system that children are repelled from culture and all that smacks of the highbrow. This is not so much the teachers' fault as the fault of the situation, which implies that most of what the children like is worthless, whereas what the teacher likes is superior. In the necessarily rigid atmosphere of the classroom, culture tends to appear rather drearily solemn.

Perhaps an inspired teacher may be able to do better than this, given time and freedom. Any cultural influence, in fact, depends on the man who gives it. Do we have such men? Some, no doubt. But do we have enough, and if we raise the leaving age shall we get more of them? The report itself admits that, as far as the less intelligent pupils are concerned, "whether they will be able to get the right teachers seems to us a doubtful matter," (p.94) and, little though it wishes to, goes on to imply that the teaching situation in Secondary Moderns is often bad.

I am not arguing against the possibility of an improvement in the quality of Secondary Modern education. I am only arguing against the likelihood of it under the old system and using the old methods. And

And the third aim of this school, parents, is to teach them …
to think for themselves, they must not be prey to any of the isms,

the Report holds out no hope of altering these. It is an old tradition in our education that the teachers determine how and what they teach. Legally there is no compulsory subject except Religious Instruction (which is, one would think, the most controversial subject of the lot!). There have been experiments of a mild sort in method and syllabus, particularly in some of the progressive Secondary Moderns, but the majority of the profession have preferred to go on teaching the old things in the old way, though sometimes compromising to the extent of calling them by new names. It is therefore safe to prophesy that the only practical measure which will come out of the Crowther Report, so far as the Modern School is concerned, will be the raising of the leaving age. Curricula and methods will be left (after perhaps a period of exhortation) to develop or fail to develop just as the teachers please.

What remedy is there, then? The favourite reproach levelled by conservatives at reformers is that their criticism is entirely destructive. There is something in this; reformers generally do spend more of their time abolishing than building, but this is because in social organisms it is more difficult to destroy than to create; and destruction automatically results in a new stability. However, conservatives are understandably fond of this reproach, since if they recognised constructive criticism when it was made, they would be obliged to answer it. I therefore want to point out that what follows is mostly intended to be constructive.

In the first place, a considerable amount of research needs to be undertaken into the purpose of education and the mechanisms of learning, things which are generally assumed to be well understood, but about which we really know very little. We ought to know how much information people retain after leaving school, and how much they use. Not only present methods need to be investigated, but also possible alternatives. The most difficult thing, of course, will be to apply the knowledge thus gained. The relevance of any research could not be gauged until actual conditions of teaching as at present conducted

…now we will go briefly into the routine of school life…

…each day will begin with an act of worship in the assembly hall …

are admitted openly. Here in fact is the great difficulty. As an extreme example, imagine the reception of a researcher bent on investigating the actual amount of physical punishment meted out in a sample of Secondary Moderns; imagine what the heads would say when asked how many times punishment was administered and not entered in the punishment book. Heads and teachers are secretive about such details. And, according to their lights, they are even right to be so, as otherwise they might find teaching impossibly difficult. It is also a comfort, amounting sometimes almost to a psychological necessity, since they generally succeed in persuading themselves that all is for the best in the best of all possible schools.

The findings of our research might support the following programme. Under present systems of teaching, much is not learnt, and most of what is learnt is forgotten; also great resistance is set up to cultural and intellectual values. Of course, the Secondary Modern pupil lacks intelligence for this kind of study. One cannot hope to turn his brain into a storehouse of knowledge; the best one can hope to do is acquaint him with certain essential facts, such as a modicum of English and arithmetic (less than is attempted now), to give him plenty of practical work, which he would not necessarily excel at, but whose usefulness he could understand, plenty of games, which he would enjoy for their own sakes, and for the rest to entertain him with good plays and good literature (which we believe, surely, are good because more enjoyable and more real, not because possessed of some mystical quality called "greatness''), and to discuss the world of reality, current affairs, the equality of sexes and races, and so forth. Our pupils will not be able to remember most of what they are told; one should not expect it. But perhaps we shall succeed in putting their hearts nearer the right place than they are at present. When a girl of 17, kind, charming, well-educated, can tell me without a trace of shame that the proximity of a negro makes her shudder, it is clear that her education has failed.

It sounds almost as if I too favour moral indoctrination. But one further step ought to be taken. Education can never hope to become efficient in the sense of gaining the optimum results from the smallest effort, until it is also voluntary. To withdraw compulsion is the only way to ensure that those who come are interested, and not hostile to their teaching. Of course, no browbeating would then be possible and no indoctrination. Discussions would have to be frank and sincere, or the students would not turn up. From the official point of view this is perhaps the gravest objection. Exams would be impossible. The only yardstick would be, I'm afraid, the unacademic one of children's interest and enjoyment regardless of apparent usefulness. The methods by which teaching would be done would resemble entertainment rather than education. But I myself learned more by reading Harrer and Maraini than by two or three hundred lessons on geography. And truth can be as genuine in a play or a novel as in any documentary — and much more vivid.

I do not expect that any of these suggestions will be followed. Our culture is too deeply committed to the doctrine of the intrinsic goodness of education. Nor would most of the present generation of teachers, be willing or indeed able to change their approach.* I even wonder if it really matters.

*Recently, after a most persuasive harangue of mine to a group of Science Sixth-Formers, in which I suggested they should read some good novels (and they were visibly impressed!), their mathematics teacher said to me: "I hear you've been telling the Sixth Form they ought to read more. I always say reading a novel is so much time wasted."

That our education system is hopelessly inefficient at least means that there is no effective indoctrination, no meddling with children's minds. The grammar schools will go on turning out adults who are adequately informed for most mundane purposes, and the readership of the Observer and the Sunday Times will go on gradually increasing. The relative illiteracy of the Secondary Modern class of society is positively satisfying to those who feel their own standards to be higher. The most valuable things in our culture — its music, its writing, its thinking, its jazz, its increasingly gentle way of life — owe nothing to the schools. Official education, in fact, matters less than people think:. The faGt that nobody is concerned enough to know what its purpose and technique should be, and that the only thing that alters its course is political expediency, implies that our rulers think so too.


When I Leave school I would like to be a Bricklayer so that I can work out of doors it is a very interest Job and you can make lots of new friends. I will probly be a tea boy to start of with then I will serve an apprentice for five years so that when I have served my appteship I can start up my own business and bild my own house I expect to be happy at my work I know two friends that all redy work at bricklayer I do not want to work in a fatry I Like mixing morter.

—DAVID (14)

From work, school work that is, I expect a good job. A good job to me is when one can earn good money. I would not like a job as a dustman or stoker or any job where one works hard with their hands yet receives a poor wage-packet. Though, I would like a job where one receives twenty pounds or so and uses his head.

To me, the only solution to obtain this type of work is work while at school. If passes in the G.C.E. are obtained then you can expect a luxury life afterwards.

—PETER (14)

I am going into the butchering trade because it has a future in it. It is an old Trade and people will always want to eat meat.

—DAVID (14¾)