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(en) Britain, *Organise! #63* - We don't need to be schooled to learn

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sun, 17 Apr 2005 08:52:04 +0200 (CEST)

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>>Our schools are factories for learning
Education is pretty bad. The rat race of
getting qualifications and school league
tables (which has the schools and teachers
cheating as well!) leaves millions of
children in dead-end jobs or permanently
excluded from society. Schooling is what
the state wants. Our early system was
shaped by the emerging centralised state
and the needs of the iron-masters and mill-
owners of the Industrial Revolution. It
taught a narrow curriculum of basic skills
via the catechism of church and factory:
hard work, obedience, deference to
authority. FW Taylor, a god to 20th Century
industrialists, wrote: "One of the very first
requirements for a man who is fit to handle
pig iron as a regular occupation is that he
be so stupid ..... that he more nearly
resembles an ox than any other type".
Even before state-organised, mandatory and
universal schooling got properly going,
working class activists and leaders opposed
it as dangerous to freedom. In 1793
William Godwin said: "...the project of a
national education ought uniformly to be
discouraged on account of its obvious
alliance with national
government...Government will not fail to
strengthen its hand and perpetuate its
institutions". The state must protect and
sustain itself, so it demands coercive and
hierarchical institutions whose ultimate
function is to brainwash people to accept
their place in an increasingly organised and
socially unequal society. Libertarians know
this very well: The greater the amount of
money that is poured into the education
systems of the world, the less it benefits the
people at the bottom. The universal
education system turns out to be yet
another way in which the poor subsidise the
rich" (Colin Ward).

Free schools & social change

These ideas are constantly challenged by
people trying to bring about positive
change in society. Very often these have
been the product of poverty and extreme
oppression, when the struggle of working
people against their `masters' has been
most intense. At other times, social
stagnation and a conservative culture have
inspired people to create such schools in the
name of freedom. Their aim has always
been the same: to change society in positive
ways by equipping children to challenge all
the assumptions and systems of society, its
institutions and agencies, as adults. Many
of the children who experienced this form
of teaching and education went on to
become pioneers in modern education,
radical activists, trade union leaders and
politicians. In countries where the state
was extremely oppressive, they often paid
for this liberation with exile, long prison-
terms, torture and death.

The modern schools movement

One of the most powerful and widely-
practiced examples of libertarian education
are Modern Schools, which were invented
by spanish anarchist and educator Francisco
Ferrer ı Guardia. Ferrer wanted to
challenge the oppressive nature of the
educational system, controlled by the
Catholic Church but not through politics or
violent agitation. Instead, he chose to defy
the state by starting a school in Barcelona
based on freedom of choice and expression,
learning for learning's sake and the
imperative of finding one's own truth. He
thought the best way to create a just society
was to raise a new generation of children
on just, humane and democratic principles.
Ferrer believed that education shouldn't
just be a preparation for life but life itself.
From anarchist and libertarian thinking, he
borrowed key words like "freedom",
"spontaneity", "creativity", "individuality"
and "self-realization" as the basis for his
educational philosophy.
Ferrer set up the Escuela Moderna in 1901.
Along with primary education, it
incorporated adult education and a leftist
publishing house. Basic to Ferrer's
philosophy was the intention to develop
individuals equipped mentally, morally and
physically to build a future libertarian
society: "We [ ] we want men [sic] who
will continue unceasingly to develop; men
who are capable of constantly destroying
and renewing their surroundings and
renewing themselves.... eager for the
triumph of new ideas, anxious to crowd
many lives into the life they have."
The school thrived but the state felt
threatened by its existence and the Escuela
Moderna was shut down in 1906 when
Ferrer was implicated in a plot to
assassinate King Alfonso XIII. On July 26
1909, workers in Barcelona began protests
that escalated into riot, rebellion and a
repression so brutal that this time is still
known as the "Tragic Week." Ferrer was
arrested, tried as a leader of the protests and
finally executed despite an international
campaign. All over the world, a movement
ensued to start Modern Schools in Ferrer's
In New York, for instance, the Francisco
Ferrer Association was formed by anarchist
leaders Emma Goldman and Alexander
Berkman amongst others. In 1911 a
Modern School opened in Greenwich
Village with nine students and was soon
part of a thriving movement across the US.
The Modern School of New York, like it's
Spanish predecessor, featured a publishing
house, adult education centre, and served as
a community centre for the whole
Modern Schools sprang up throughout the
world (including here in Britain) and the
Modern School network remains very large
even today. But the limitations of
education alone in bringing about radical
change in society have to be understood as
well. The Modern School Movement was
the product of an era when radical
experimenters in art, education and
communal living all came together to
pursue common goals, the highest of which
was to create a better world for all. The
overriding belief which sustained them was
this: If we could only raise a generation of
children who were free of race and class
prejudice, of a belief in the necessity of
war, and who could think their own minds
and solve their own problems, then a new
social order would, in fact, be possible.

The Liverpool anarchist-communist sunday school

The Liverpool Anarchist-Communist
Sunday School began meeting in November
1908. Its inspiration was a young man,
Jimmy Dick, who had become discontented
with the world of work, started attending
classes at the university and later met
Francisco Ferrer. The school opened with
37 pupils and the intention: "To break down
the national prejudices and that patriotic
piffle which is inculcated into the children
of our present-day schools" and "... To
point out to them that humility, patience
and submission are no longer virtues, if
they ever were; and that they must own
themselves". The school taught primarily
through lectures and discussions, often very
political! This was because it was seeking
deliberately to open children's minds to
politics as a means for them to begin to
challenge their situation and prepare for an
adult life as activists: "The State and
Church capture the children for they know
that the children of today are the citizens of
tomorrow.....A child will think if we teach it
to do so; but leave it to the mercy of the
present school method and it will grow up
in a spirit of subservience." It's no
different today, if you think about it.
The school flourished. On Empire Day
1909, students distributed 2000 leaflets
attacking imperial celebrations in schools.
Later in the year they were involved in the
campaign to save Francisco Ferrer from
execution, publishing a pamphlet about the
tragedy and changing the name of the
school to the International Modern School
in his honour. In 1910, adult classes were
launched and new teachers brought
different teaching methods; classes based
around free-ranging topics and discussion
rather than lectures became very popular.
Students were also increasingly involved in
deciding what would be discussed and
In 1911 there was a massive backlash
against the school, prompted by the Siege
of Sidney Street. Newspapers alleged that
an international anarchist conspiracy
existed, and one of its tentacles were the
anarchist sunday schools. The International
Modern School rented its premises from the
local Independent Labour Party (which
eventually became Labour, then New
Labour). Frightened for their electoral
prospects by association with anarchists
(does this sound familiar?), the School was
asked to leave. The School moved on and
continued the lonely fight for existence,
often battling the rigid approaches of the
Socialist Sunday Schools who wanted to
`improve' the working class by drilling it in
its own `Socialist Catechisms' and
`Commandments'. This approach
obviously still exists today, especially in
the faith schools Tony Blair and New
Labour favour. But as Jimmy Dick said
almost 100 years ago: "The repetition of
these moral musings does not tend to
develop the mind, but rather to hinder the
natural development of the child."
`The school had no rules, attendance was voluntary, there
was no uniform, no homework, no punishment, no formal
lessons, no syllabus and children were not controlled by
individual teachers. Relationships between adults and
children were open, friendly and free from coercion, unlike modern

Free school experiments

The Anarchist-Communist Sunday School
did not pioneer many radical teaching
methods during its life, but it illustrated the
impoverished nature of the state school
system, which continues today. Many
people have tried to organise alternatives to
the state system, schools that are outside
state control or which have a radically
different approach to learning. Sticking
with the Liverpool theme, two examples
where people did try to change approaches
to learning were the Scotland Road Free
School and the Liverpool Free School,
which existed in the early 1970s.

The Scotland road free school

The Scotland Road Free School became
was nationally important and encouraged
the formation of other free schools
throughout the country. Two local teachers
wanted to establish a school run by
children, parents and teachers together,
without a headmaster, centralised authority
or the usual hierarchies. It would be open
when it was needed and lessons would be
optional. The school issued a prospectus,
saying: "The school will be a community
school....totally involved with its
environment.....the vanguard of social
change". At its opening in 1970, 80
parents and 50 children had committed
themselves to the experiment.
The school had no rules, attendance was
voluntary, there was no uniform, no
homework, no punishment, no formal
lessons, no syllabus and children were not
controlled by individual teachers.
Relationships between adults and children
were open, friendly and free from coercion,
unlike modern schools. School meetings
made decisions about activities and the use
of the building. Though lack of resources
restricted what the school could do and the
children could learn, attendance was pretty
constant even though the majority of the
students were non-attenders or had been
excluded. There were frequent outings,
making use of the world outside as a
teaching environment. In contrast, one of
those `much-loved' local schools, St
Anthony's, was notorious for the severity
of its discipline and the brutality of the
beatings handed out to the unruly or
The school's founders thought the example
of the Free School would inspire other
people and communities to establish
schools, resulting in "the fragmentation of
the state system into smaller, all-age,
personalised, democratic, locally-
controlled community schools which can
best serve the immediate needs of the
area...." Inspired by the example of the
state-funded frijskole in Denmark, they
naively thought the Government would
fund the Free School without realising that
the Scandinavian system was the result of
long-term community pressure for
independent schools and not the
revolutionary example of a single, short-
term experiment. This is how permanent
progress occurs, through social change, not
individual initiative as innovative as it is.
Without financial support and in a working
class community damaged by
unemployment and poverty, the school
closed in 1972 despite continuing to have
the support of local people.
Another free school, the Liverpool Free
School, also existed at this time inside the
local university. It started up on Saturday
mornings but intended to become a full-
time day school. Like the Scotland Road
Free School, what was learned and how
was decided by the children. It funded
itself from a voluntary levy and occasional
grants from supportive organisations.
Though a small-scale, spontaneous
initiative that never grew beyond its limits,
it has a profound effect on the 300 children
who attended during its existence. This
was the first and perhaps only experience
of freedom the children would have in their
lives: they could co-operate or learn on
their own, play, study or do nothing at all,
as they decided. Said one student: "The
wouldn't let all schools be like this would
they? It might be really disorganised but I
like being able to learn what I want, when I
`We've been conditioned to think that education must be
expensive, that it is too complex for ordinary people and
must be left to experts, and that it is so vital it is best
organised by large and powerful institutions, like the local
education authority or the state. Like most things we are
taught to believe, this is a lie.'

It doesn't have to be this way.

It's known that children can quickly acquire
all the skills and knowledge taught in the
first seven years of school in around six
months of more intensive teaching. So why
are children being forced to learn formally
at two? Children are isolated from society
and learn nothing about how it functions.
Yet some schools (e.g. the Parkway
Educational Program in Philadelphia, US)
got rid of their school buildings in favour of
8-10 community-based `shopfront' classes
providing a local base and facilities but
with most teaching taking place in the
community: "arts students study at the Art
Museum, biology students at the zoo;
business and vocational courses meet at
on-the-job sites such as journalism at a
newspaper or mechanics at a garage".
The Scotland Road Free School didn't
teach labour relations with textbooks. It
took its students to the nearby Fisher-
Bendix factory when the workers were on
Why aren't all schools like this? The state
will only pay for schooling it approves of.
Nowadays these are increasingly faith
schools or specialist `academies' where
selection rules. Any alternative is viewed
with suspicion and hostility. Yet everybody
who works pays for state schooling and
ought to have a say. We've been
conditioned to think that education must be
expensive (the higher education of the
children of the upper and middle classes is
expensive!); that it is too complex for
ordinary people and must be left to experts;
and that it is so vital it is best organised by
large and powerful institutions, like the
local education authority or the state. Like
most things we are taught to believe, this is
a lie.
There is a great deal of scientific
knowledge about how children and adults
learn best and actual examples like the
`Modern' and `Ferrer' schools that have
decades of experience in education and
learning to build on. What's needed are for
parents, students, educationalists and local
people to come together to campaign to
return schooling to local control. Schools
and learning centres need to be thoroughly
reorganised, with reactionary forces like
business - especially corporate business -
and the churches excluded. The authority
and social standing of autocratic
headteachers needs to be challenged and
broken and too compliant and often
exclusive boards of governors replaced
with democratic forums managing schools.
The state can be challenged and forced to
meet the needs of ordinary people. The
example of the Scandinavian frijskole tells
us this is possible if we want it badly
enough. Do we?


For up to date information on libertarian education, go to
www.libed.org.uk For a different take on libertarian
education, try the Anarchist Guide To Raising Kids at
A very good description of what libertarian education's
about can be found at www.infoshop.org/faq/secj6.html
For a basic introduction to Modern Schools, go to Section
13 at www.infoshop.org.faq/secJ5.html
For modern examples of alternative education `without
walls', go to www.tradequeerthings.com/
anarchistfree.html or www.ainfos.ca.03.aug
* Organise! #63 - Winter 2004 FOR REVOLUTIONARY ANARCHISM -
the magazin of the anarchist federation

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