Is compulsory schooling a must, or should parents have a choice?

Is compulsory schooling a must, or should parents have a choice?

Compulsory education is a strange phenomenon. You would think that parents would resist being compelled to part from their children for 7 or more hours a day. And yet in most countries, compulsory education is accepted with little resistance.

Given the low opinion that people have of politicians, it is little short of amazing that we let them decide the agenda for our children’s lives. We are compelled to let politicians decide what our children will or will not know, how they will spend their time and what codes of behaviour are acceptable.

The shortcomings of compulsory education have been known for 150 years. For a long time, educationists thought that the shortcomings could be negated by changing the curriculum, changing the assessment process, changing the way we teach, or changing the school environment. In the US and other Western countries, billions of dollars have been spent on all sorts of innovation to improve literacy, numeracy and generally make school more enjoyable. This has met with little success.

Armed guards, metal detectors and a host of security measures are the result of forcing children who don’t want to be in what they see as institutional imprisonment.

Over the last 30 years, much has been written about the evils of compulsory education. Leading educationists point to how modern education is responsible for “dumbing us down", with the increasing tendency to rely on “experts" for such everyday activities such as parenting or the personal grooming we once learnt at our mother’s knee.

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Others point to the fact that after almost 150 years of state education in most countries, millions of children are still not functionally literate. They say that it takes around 100 hours for a willing student to learn to read and write, and yet the disaffection that comes with compulsion creates an unwillingness to learn anything the school may offer. They say literacy levels in some US states are no better, and in some areas worse, than they were in the 1860s.

At a time when India is passing laws to make state-controlled education compulsory, educationists and many parents in other countries are turning away from the idea. In the US, around 1.5 million children are being home-schooled every day. In India, we have found a better solution: Here, most parents send their children to school as long as they they think it is bringing some benefit to the child and family, and as soon as they find that the education system has nothing of utility to offer, they withdraw their child from the system.

Obviously, different children from diverse backgrounds have different needs and, therefore, need different things from state education. The majority stay long enough to learn to read, write and do basic math. Some stay until economic realities confront the likelihood of mediocre marks, or the fear of sexual predators. Whatever the reasons, the vast majority do not spend a full childhood in education.

Sending your child to a place where they can learn what you and they think is useful and want to learn is the solution of the “de-schoolers". They argue that parents and children know best what they want from education and compulsory schooling should be replaced with lots of different learning centres set up to meet the need for non-coercive education.

They believe that parents should be free to decide how and what their children learn, and that they should not be compelled to send them to a one-size-fits-all school. They argue that the billions that are spent on education would be better utilized in tax rebates or voucher systems which will allow parents and children to choose what, when, where and for how long the children study. They believe that in the age of the Internet and the cellphone, and the opportunities that these bring for education, a compulsory one-size-fits-all schooling system is more than an anachronism, it’s a step in the wrong direction.

Will the government be successful in forcing children into schools? Probably not. We are an enterprising people who are adept at finding our own solutions to a myriad of problems. Our parenting skills, whether we are rich or poor, are among the finest in the world, and we do not have the problem of compelled disaffected youths that is so common in the so-called more advanced societies. Though we suffer from social unrest, it is not caused by disaffected, undereducated, disinterested youths who have been forced into schools.

Though, superficially, it seems a good idea to compel people to send their children to school, it is so only if we have schools that meet all of our families’ needs. Our schooling system only satisfies those few that do well in exams. Introducing compulsory schooling will be resisted by those who can find better things for their children to do. Those who have not had a childhood in school, have not been forced to accept someone else’s knowledge, thoughts and solutions, are not likely to accept their children being forced into childhoods controlled by the government.

Abha Adams is an education consultant. She writes a monthly column on training and education as they relate to careers and the workplace.

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