When I was thirteen, I left school and never went back. I don’t remember much about my last day. I don’t remember what lessons I had, or what I did when I got home. I only remember trying to make a mental recording as I walked down the corridors, into the foyer, out the automatic doors and onto the bus. I’d made a decision not to tell anybody I was leaving and waited until the end of the autumn term so that nobody would know what I’d done until the new year. It would be my own secret, daunting escape. My private anti-climax. Anyway, I wanted to reserve the right to bottle it and change my mind.
There is no legal requirement for children to attend school. The law says just that they must be in full-time education, in school ‘or otherwise’. Most kids don’t know this, and anyhow their parents wouldn’t allow them to drop out. Few families are in a position to home-school their children, even if they wanted to (mine weren’t). What made leaving school a real possibility for me was the fact that my family had a history of troubled relations with the school system. I lived with my father, whose severe dyslexia had made his school experience a nightmare. He’d left school at thirteen and embarked on a life of unofficial self-employment, beginning with a surprisingly popular line in repairing sash window cords door-to-door; later, he ran a garage out of a London squat. My brother, fourteen years older than me, also found himself out of the school system early, ultimately leaving the country to escape being put back into it. All this meant that my decision was comprehensible to my parents. Neither of them stood in my way.
I could see that the cell door was open, but it wasn’t easy to walk out. Schools occupy a strange place in the psyche. You start school so early, in this country especially – for summer babies like me it begins at four – that its centrality is impressed on you before you can evaluate the matter. By the time you are in a position to reflect on it, it has become so normal, so deeply ingrained, that you lack the necessary distance and detachment. Along with everyone else, I had it drummed into me that going to school – and obeying its rules – was something we must do. Woe betide us if we didn’t.
I didn’t have my father’s trouble with schoolwork. The problem wasn’t bullying, either. I was the butt of jokes and the recipient of mundane, low-level abuse, but nothing extreme. Nor was the problem a lack of ‘intellectual stimulation’ – or not only that. When well-meaning acquaintances suggested that I might be happier at a different school – a grammar school perhaps – I felt only that I had failed to make myself understood. I resented the attempt to draw a line between me and other kids (the ‘thick’ or ‘disruptive’ ones) and to attribute blame to them. Some kids may have made my life unpleasant, but they weren’t the problem. Fundamentally, we were on the same side. The problem was teachers, and more than the teachers, school itself.
I didn’t know the name for it then, but I was a child liberationist. I objected to the notion of compulsory schooling, and to society’s treatment of children more generally – the consensus that children’s lives are not their own but must be closely regulated by adults. Adults decided where we went and what we did, what we wore and how we spoke, when we slept and when we woke up. What parents didn’t determine, schools and teachers did. I believed that many of these diktats were not in our interests but counter to them. I also believed that the traditional distinction between children and adults was radically overdrawn or miscast, and that what children were like now wasn’t a good indicator of what they might be, and might be capable of, under different conditions.
Not long before I left school, out of curiosity, I took an evening class in sociology at the local further education college. My headmaster found this extremely irritating and made no effort to disguise the fact. But it was there that I first came across some ideas that changed my life. The image of the school as a ‘microcosm’ of society. The historical roots of the long summer holiday and school bells. And the one that made the greatest impression of all: Ivan Illich’s concept of the ‘hidden curriculum’ – the informal lessons, often unacknowledged, that schools teach beyond and alongside the formal curriculum. These ideas were exciting to me not just because they were new, but because they confirmed what I already sensed. School had a politics, and only in relation to that politics was it possible to make sense of what happened there. There was no plausible pedagogical reason why we should wear shirts with collars, or tuck our shirts into our trousers. Why we shouldn’t put our hands in our pockets or fold our arms. Why we should address the people who taught us as Mr, Mrs or Sir – long after the habit had more or less died out in the wider community. The lesson conveyed by the enforcement of these practices, to which a vast amount of time and energy was devoted, was about power. We were taught that what happened to us was not up to us, but that things would be better and easier if we submitted to authority. The fact that the instructions we were given were often arbitrary, even irrational, made them a perfect means of driving this lesson home.
It seemed obvious to me that despite what everyone said, schools were not primarily about education. Formal learning made up a minimal fraction of the activity there (and the part adults later find the least memorable). The real purpose and priority of the school system was to instil the habit of obedience, of deference to our superiors. Learning was to be discouraged if it interfered with this end. The hidden curriculum went beyond official or semi-official rules about clothing, speech and comportment. It was present in the manner of its enforcement, and the peculiar tone that teachers – and to some extent, adults in general – adopt when addressing children. In our society at least, it is an unwritten law that children, especially in groups, must be addressed in a distinctive register that would be bizarre and insulting if directed at adults. We all know that tone, or range of tones. I remember the sugary sing-song cadence, gently devastating in its assumption of our utter stupidity. Still more, I remember the particular brand of humour-free sarcasm that was a near constant soundtrack to my two-and-a-bit years at high school. The flat rhetorical questions, to which the ‘correct’ answers had to be given, rote-like, in order to escape an escalation only one side could win. ‘Do I make myself clear?’ – ‘Yes.’ ‘Yes, Mrs X’ – ‘Yes, Mrs X.’ Because my father never spoke to me like this, I probably felt the sting more acutely. But I think all children recognise and resent it, just as all children, at some point and in some way, bridle at adult control in general. Most have no possibility of escape, nothing to do but bide their time.
I was at school in the late 1990s. What I experienced was innocuous in comparison to the schooling endured by previous generations, some elements of which have since been resurrected. Schools now mix neo-traditional disciplinarianism with a frenzied culture of testing and targets. But I felt at the time, and still feel, that there are forms of violence that are corrosive rather than explosive, forms of control that are covert rather than overt, but which nevertheless eat away at the human beings who are subjected to them.
I was shy and had little appetite for a confrontation I knew would be futile. I had no allies among the other pupils – I tried to raise revolutionary consciousness among my few friends but they told me to buckle down. The closest I came to insurrection was when I wrote to the headmaster to explain that I would not be signing the Home-School Agreement recently issued to every pupil. It seems now to have been an early manifestation of a belief which has intensified in recent years: that a lack of commitment or discipline in the home is hampering schools in their mission, and that home and school should be encouraged to act as a united front. (Today this extends to the fining and even imprisonment of parents as punishment for their children’s truancy.) My school already insisted that our parents sign our school planner each week (my dad would make a grubby print with a thumb primed with engine oil, just to take the piss). I don’t remember the exact content of the Home-School Agreement, but it involved a promise to uphold the ‘values’ of the school, to wear the uniform and generally obey instructions. In my letter, I told the headmaster that I could not in good conscience sign up to this. I told him I was opposed to uniforms, and that I wore mine only for the sake of a quiet life. As for the promise to obey instructions, such blanket commitments were irresponsible. In primary school, they’d had a habit of asking us, ‘If X told you to jump off a cliff, would you?’ We were supposed to think for ourselves. Unless X was a teacher.
The headmaster met my letter with a long silence that left me in a state of heightened anxiety for several days. Eventually, he summoned me to his office. ‘Did your father write this?’ he asked. He didn’t know my father or he would have realised that he isn’t the letter-writing type, but perhaps the thumbprint had come to his attention and marked him as a bad influence. Or perhaps the headmaster remembered a brief encounter at the opening of the new music room (infrastructure upgrades – it was the era of New Labour – were always accompanied by great fanfare; once, at primary school, we’d had to sing ‘One more step along the world I go’ at the opening of a driveway). On this occasion I was wearing a dress and already regretting it as my dad and I approached the school entrance, where the headmaster stood in suit and bow tie, legs wide apart and arms folded. My dad whispered to me, ‘You don’t look nearly as stupid as he does,’ and when the headmaster demanded to know what we were smirking about, my dad told him – thinking, perhaps, that he would see the funny side (he didn’t).
Schools in the 1990s had absorbed some of the ideas once associated with radical philosophies of education, diluted to near homeopathic proportions. Lessons were superficially ‘interactive’ – worksheets had taken the place of rote learning, and we were forever designing posters for non-existent events. ‘Creativity’ and ‘individuality’ were celebrated. Every child was supposed to ‘fulfil their potential’. But in practice, at my school at least, a grey uniformity was fiercely policed. The worst sin – especially in girls – was to be above yourself. Whereas other forms of misbehaviour might be treated with a certain indulgence (‘kids being kids’), perceived uppitiness, even in the guise of the wrong facial expression, was met with genuine resentment. And I knew that this was the way any articulate questioning of authority was likely to be received: as an assertion of superiority, a demand for special treatment. A sympathetic response would implicitly excuse the system through recourse to exceptionalism: ‘You’re not like the others, you see.’ The less sympathetic (and more common) alternative was a variant of ‘Who the fuck do you think you are?’
Later, when I’d enrolled full-time at the further education college to sit my GCSEs and A Levels, I told my tutor I wanted to apply to Cambridge. ‘Well, I like to think I look like Johnny Depp,’ he replied. Still, compared to school, the FE college – which offered vocational and academic courses for school leavers, dropouts and mature students – was idyllic. I found myself thrown in with a group of benign misfits on a programme for people who had ‘issues with education’. Some had been expelled, one was pregnant, others were returning to education later in life. What we studied was not much different from what we would have been taught at school. But attendance wasn’t formally compulsory. There was no register, no detention, no uniform, no ‘Mrs X’ and ‘Mr Y’. We were treated, more or less, like human beings. That made all the difference to me – and, I think, to some of the others. Better still, there was a student bar, Digby’s, with a conveniently lax approach to underage drinking. I spent my lunch breaks there, drinking £1 bottles of Foster’s with a housewife called Elaine, a friend from my psychology course. At other times, a small group of us would smoke weed in the park before drifting pleasantly through history lessons. I spent many long, boring hours between classes in the canteen, drinking bad coffee and listening to the Pot Noodle machine playing a little tune on a loop before saying ‘Help! I’m a man in a suit! Let me out!’ I never regretted my decision.
My convictions about schooling haven’t fundamentally changed, though they invariably meet with incredulity. What would you do with kids then? How else would they get an education? How would parents go out to work if children weren’t at school? (Of course, the last question is no longer hypothetical; what the pandemic has proved is that schooling doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and that proposals for its reform must be part of a wider programme for societal change.) In the years since I left school, I’ve been struck by the parallels between this sort of reaction and those that are provoked by other kinds of radical political proposal. The communist is asked: how do you contend with human selfishness? The anarchist is asked: on an anarchist boat, who’s the captain? The prison or police abolitionist is asked: what would you do with murderers? These aren’t bad questions (nor are the answers easy). But they represent at best the beginning of a discussion, not its end. Radical philosophies of childhood and education, common throughout the 20th century and in the 1960s in particular – Illich, A.S. Neill and Paulo Freire are crucial figures – have yet to enjoy the same sort of revival as comparable thinking about policing and prisons. Any serious departure from politics as usual is liable to be derided as infantile. But it is possible both to imagine and to identify historical and contemporary instances of things being done differently. There were not always police, prisons and schools.
Adults often respond to children’s complaints by telling them they will come to see things differently. I remember thinking that while it must be true that people do change their minds in this way – otherwise, society’s treatment of children wouldn’t be as it is – it doesn’t follow that the views we adopt later in life are better or more correct than those we used to hold. The assumption is that we become wiser as we get older, but it struck me then that this doesn’t account for the possibility of forgetting, or for the distorting effect produced by the need to reconcile with the past or justify what is convenient in the present. I made a promise to myself aged thirteen that I wouldn’t forget – that my later self would resist the sentimentalising condescension that adults often adopt when they think about the children they used to be. In retrospect, it wasn’t my view of childhood that was naive, but my expectation that the world beyond it would be different.