Authoritarian Schooling: A Catalogue of Damage compiled by David Gribble



Putting children off learning

Most of the articles on this site deal with general principles and their results. This one lists dangers buried in actual timetables.


Physical Education

We are told, for instance, that children nowadays do not take enough exercise, so we send them to schools where they have to learn to sit still for several hours a day, and they have perhaps two sessions of sport a week. During these sport sessions much of the time is spent changing into the prescribed clothes and hanging about waiting for instruction. Running energetically in the playground is somehow not considered to be proper exercise, and skateboards are banned. Loitering on the touchline, by contrast, shivering on the edge of the swimming pool or hunting for your socks in the changing room, is thought to be unavoidable. Natural, exuberant energy is suppressed, and anyone who is not physically skilful learns to hate all forms of exercise.



There is similar counterproductivity in other subjects. 'Oracy,' for example, is examined in Britain when the students are sixteen, but for eleven years they have been obliged to sit in classrooms in silence for most of the day. Conversation, like running in the corridors, is frowned on. 'Literacy' is all too often not about reading what interests you, writing your own stories, texting your friends or collecting information from the web, it is about sentence structure, following precise instructions and learning grammatical terms.

Imagination is often given little value, or even repressed. Children are given story plans, and penalised for getting too involved and going off in directions of their own. To divert from the story plan is 'wrong'. Children are given lists of words to include in their supposedly imaginative work, and find they lose marks for omitting any of the words.

Independence of thought is discouraged even in supposedly imaginative writing. The more literate and intelligent children will find this restrictive 'literacy' excruciating. Those who have to struggle through it one letter at a time, only to have their efforts declared wrong, will probably avoid writing whenever possible throughout their lives.



In mathematics it is even worse. Only too often primary school children are expected to learn number bonds (4 3 = 1, etc), whether or not they have related the numbers to anything real. They all know that if you share four sweets between three people there will be one each and one left over, but 4 3 = 1 is gibberish that has to be learnt by rote. Many children actually believe that if you don't know the answer by heart, there is no way of finding it out.

The irrational guesses made by those who have been left behind are not evidence of stupidity, but merely show that the children do not understand what they are being asked to do. If they understood the questions they would be able to find the right answers: they are stuck in the position in which I found myself with the interrogative words in Greek (see the link to my secondary education below): I could not answer the questions because I did not know what I was being asked. It should have been easy enough for me to learn the half-dozen necessary words, but because I was left behind I simply could not catch up. It should be easy enough for those who do not understand arithmetic to pick up the few skills required, but once you have failed to understand why 4 - 3 = 1 (or perhaps, a few years later, why 7 x 8 = 56) then the rest of maths is blanked out. That is why so many people hate it, and pass their antipathy on to their children.

My wife taught an adult with learning difficulties who was keen on darts, and could not only subtract, say, double 18 and 20 and 5 from 301 without a pause, but could also tell you what you needed to get when you were approaching the end, and exactly what you should aim for. Scoring for darts made sense to him, but 301 (2 x 18 + 20 + 5) would have meant nothing to him at all.


The curriculum in general

The curriculum in most authoritarian schools is a minefield. Many children manage to find paths through it without being blown up by mathematics or English or PE, but these paths will lead them away from other, possibly more useful objectives.

Conflict resolution, for instance, is not normally part of the curriculum. The enormous moral energy of young people is ignored. They have to wait until they are eighteen to contribute to the real world. Citizenship is taught as a subject that may be useful to the students in the future, not as a practical issue for their present communities.

As is shown by the attitude of the NASUWT (see link below to 'Lack of trust'), there is often actual hostility to the involvement of school students in the running of their own schools. One example of its potential value is success of many student-run anti-bullying schemes. By comparison attempts at staff control generally fail. In schools where the staff dominate, conflict is not dealt with, it is just stopped. Before long there is more conflict. Where students are allowed to take charge, the improvement is permanent.

Children who tread most carefully through the minefield have little time to do anything except follow the path laid by the curriculum as best they can, but if they are relieved of the pressure of the curriculum they can do amazingly well exploring in other directions. The drama work done by school students who are allowed to improvise, for instance, is often of an extremely high standard; paintings from Room 13, the art studio at Caol primary school, in Scotland, where children paint whatever they like, have been shown at the Tate Modern in London; Gifford Hooper, the founder of Hovercam, the company with the flying video cameras that are used all round the world, spent most of his time at Dartington Hall School designing and building his own remote-controlled model aeroplanes in the attics; at Countesthorpe College in the early 1970s, where the students chose their own topics for Social Studies, the exam results were outstanding. It is simply not true that without the standard curriculum, children are idle. Without the standard curriculum they can be energetic, imaginative and productive.

In most authoritarian schools there is an implied assumption that if children are not forced to do sport they will not take any exercise, if they are not forced to learn to read they will never learn to read, if they are not forced to learn arithmetic they will never be able to handle money or score at darts, if they are not forced to follow the national curriculum they will never be properly educated.

I once heard a fifteen-year-old ask, 'Why does everything have to be taught when you can learn it on your own?' By keeping children silent when they need to talk, by keeping them sitting when they need to run about, by giving them no time for imaginative exploration when they have ideas of their own to explore, by making them work with numbers before they understand the connection between numbers and quantities, schools are conducting a counterproductive campaign. But that is not all. By putting pressure on children to learn things that do not interest them, schools destroy their natural desire to learn.