06 August 2007

Educational Conscription

In March, I wrote a post entitled What is wrong with you people?! in which I sounded indignant about the proposal to raise the compulsory school leaving age to 18. I used lots of bold and colour, and a yellow warning image, to ram my point home. I’m glad I made some noise, because it resulted in the creation of a collective blog, Educational Conscription, which now sits out there as an expression of disapproval and resistance. It makes me feel I did something, even if it's only a gesture, so that if my future grandchildren ever ask me “what did you do when the seriously authoritarian stuff began to be floated?” I will be able to reply without embarrassment.

Much of the credit for setting up the blog goes to Surreptitious Evil. Additional technical support was provided by mediocracy-blog-reader Paul. Many libertarians, and some non-libertarians, have supported the blog, witness its long list of “blogs that link here”.

Now that we have a new premier, who appears to be at least as committed to the proposal as his predecessor, it may be a good time to reiterate why I feel so strongly about this issue, and why I think it is more significant than (e.g.) ID cards or habeas corpus. It isn’t because I think compulsory education is wrong (though I do), or because I think state education is usually pretty awful (I do), or because I think the so-called “skills gap” — beyond the basic numeracy/literacy problem — is a fiction (I do), or because I think the whole idea of “education” has been massively overhyped (I do).

Even if I thought that compulsory state education was fine, and that this country had a skills gap which reflected an inappropriate lack of enthusiasm for institutional education, I would still regard the government’s proposal as totally unacceptable and extremely sinister. That is because I see it as breaking a key principle.

Let us imagine for a moment that the proposed extension was to the age of 19, not 18. You would then have the extraordinary situation that the government insisted on determining precisely how an adult individual spends his or her life. Other than by authoritarian regimes, this has only ever been done for military purposes or under conditions of national emergency. It would clearly be wholly unjustifiable, unless you wanted to ditch the entire basis of modern non-authoritarian society. We are not talking about intruding on lives by means of banning or inspecting. We are talking about directing a person’s entire waking life.

I think some people have difficulty grasping the key issue here. They somehow manage to confuse the proposal with totally unrelated ideas, e.g. that it involves more opportunities for seventeen-year-olds, or that welfare benefits for teenagers will be made conditional on continuing with education. The proposals have nothing to do with opportunities or benefits. They are about coercion.

Now the one shade of grey in this otherwise black-and-white unacceptability revolves around the fact that the individuals whose lives are to be directed are not eighteen but seventeen. Therefore on some definitions, they are not adults. Legal thresholds for majority vary from country to country, and from situation to situation. In Scotland, as far as I'm aware, you have full rights at 16. In England, you can certainly do a lot of things after 16, though you can’t vote, sit on a jury or make a will.

The issue here is not, however, one of where the age of majority should be drawn for different contexts. No one, to my knowledge, has presented this proposal in terms of:

“until recently, it was accepted that seventeen-year-olds were mature enough to decide for themselves about their education; now, however, in the light of new research about rates of maturation, this position needs to be reviewed.”
Indeed, what is disturbing about the proposal is how little debate about the underlying principles there has been. It has simply been a case of “too few skills, therefore additional coercion — no-brainer”.

The reason I am far more alarmed by this proposal than by (say) ID cards is that I see it as a way of surreptitiously floating a much larger and more radical notion, namely that coercion is, in principle, an acceptable way to address social problems. To some extent, I would not be particularly relieved if this proposal simply died a quiet death. It worries me that there has been so little resistance to the principle of the thing. In my view, if people don't object to this proposal on moral grounds, we could easily start to see the coercion idea applied in other areas. For example, it has been suggested that we be forced to vote.

If you find any of this persuasive, and haven’t yet written to your MP about this, please consider doing so. A pro forma letter is available here. Meanwhile, check out the collective blog. In the last couple of months there have been articles posted there by Tom Paine, Bel, Roger Thornhill, Peter Risdon, Ian Grey, ThunderDragon, Wat Tyler and Devil’s Kitchen.

And who knows? Perhaps the campaign is having some effect. We have now had one section of the establishment coming out against the proposal, though not necessarily for the best of reasons. Notionally, the teachers' trade union PAT is concerned about "disaffection" and "needless criminalisation". In practice, I suspect its members are (rightly) worried by the prospect of having to deal with stroppy seventeen-year-old blokes, not best pleased about being incarcerated for another year or two ...

Update
I make some more comments on the issue here.