February 23, 2021

For centuries, the English were renowned for their brutal treatment of children. This inglorious national love affair with floggings and canings applied to punishing the young as well as criminal offenders. It bewildered French observers, who called it le vice anglais. Physical punishments for children had far more staying power in England than in many of the states we enjoy comparing ourselves to. In the early 20th century, other European countries set up gulags, while the English continued to birch crying schoolboys.

The French — as they always do — believed this was masochism at work. Le vice anglais was the perverted and twitchy consequence of bringing up the English elite in violent boarding schools, where they learned to love illicit drubbings. The historian Clive Emsley’s view that beatings in all schools were “understood as a tried and tested means of discipling and civilising the unruly boy, and to a much lesser extent, the unruly girl” rings truer, because it is a far less imaginative explanation.

Finally, in 1987 the licence teachers had to beat schoolchildren was withdrawn. Le vice anglais was no more, just like bear-baiting, absolute monarchy and the Empire. Are England’s schools any less cruel for it?

That, on the face of it, is a ridiculous question. But given that schools have effectively been abolished for almost a year now, it is worth thinking about what they are for, and what they actually do to the children under their care.

The pandemic revealed that the first purpose of school was not to educate children, but to hold them in place while their parents worked. Labour markets and schools are not distinct things. The British government closed schools later than its European counterparts, and was reluctant to do so for most of March 2020. When schools are shut, they take a bite out of the economy, too. Whether children actually want to go to school is secondary to their parents needing to go to work.

But why wouldn’t children want to go to school? Le vice anglais, cold showers and spam fritters no longer exist, do they? Well, sexual harassment, revenge porn, and garden-variety bullying is pretty routine today in English schools. In particular, sexual harassment in mixed-sex schools keeps getting worse. Charities, think tanks and the Guardian say that the solution is more sex education — more school, even though this is a problem that exists largely because of school. Outside of prison, which most of us manage to avoid, school might be the only place where many people will experience physical violence, or torture.

Then there are the more mundane forms of cruelty, like boredom. If you have ever worked in a school — if you haven’t but you manage to combine the attributes of a High Court Judge, a Welfare Officer, and a Prison Guard, then you ought to apply now — you will know that many, if not all, pupils are bored to the marrow. At the school I worked in, it was not uncommon for some of them to simply fall asleep at their desks. The teaching profession is obsessed with the idea of “engagement”. If only teachers can produce the right tasks, develop the most involving activities, then pupils will pay attention. But for a good number of pupils, it is not the activity, the lesson, or the teacher that fails to engage them — it is the fact they are being forced to go to school against their will.

They are forced to do tedious tasks, watch tedious videos, and listen to tedious teachers. Huge cliff-sized chunks of irrelevant material are dropped on them from a great height, for obscure purposes. Once they have learned to read, and learned basic mathematics, and learned how to stand in a line without starting a brawl, what exactly are most of them there for? To learn about the water cycle? To learn how to read a map? They can google the water cycle, and they have GPS on their phones. Children are technology-literate in ways that their parents and teachers don’t really grasp at all. The educational system — like so many others in the last decade — has been outflanked by technology to the point where it looks obsolete.

As a result, pupils report becoming more and more bored with secondary school as it grinds on. Up to a third of Year Nine pupils in 2016, for instance, said they felt bored at school. Experts have long recognised this, but they blame it on hormones, rather than the fact that for many children, school work is irrelevant to their interests and unsuited to their abilities. No wonder. If I were locked in a room and forced to watch someone I wasn’t wild about — say Paul Mason — blather on about something I found boring — like the life and thought of Rosa Luxemburg — I would begin to seethe a bit.

If you then told me that I had to ask Paul for permission to go to the toilet, or that the person behind me would begin to start prodding me with a broken ruler sharpened to a fine, stabby point, I would start to feel seriously frustrated. That’s precisely what school is for millions of children. Institutionalised, legally-mandated, financially wasteful frustration, overseen by teachers who are, politically at least, just like Paul Mason.

And then we tell these Year Nines they have to endure it for four more years after the point they have given up on school entirely. The English used to flog children’s bodies, now we flog their minds instead and call it progress.

The writer Scott Alexander understands, calling it “child prison”. School, he argues, “forces children to be confined in an uninhabitable environment, restrained from moving… in a state of profound sleep deprivation, under pain of imprisoning their parents if they refuse.” Recently, the critic Lorna Finlayson wrote that “the real purpose and priority of the school system was to instil the habit of obedience, of deference to our superiors.” Finlayson left school at 13 and never looked back.

I do not know if Finlayson or Alexander are right. But their arguments resonated with me. At school, I spent most of my time daydreaming, or arguing with teachers, or turning up late for lessons, or walking during the once-a-term cross-country race, or doodling in my exercise book, or watching the clock.

And I had it good: I wasn’t being bullied and I managed to gouge far more sick days out of my sympathetic parents than most of my peers could. There was real, unaddressed misery around me, and like all the worst misery it was completely pointless. It happened because it happened.

When I went back to work at a school before the pandemic, I saw that little had changed, except that Facebook had been swapped for TikTok. The routine cruelty with which children treat each other is punished when teachers discover it, but impossible for them to stop. Getting used to cruelty is the point, and considered by adults, even if they wouldn’t admit openly, a sad part of what it means to “grow up”.

Abolishing schools is, it’s fair to say, a fringe position. Still, the facts-don’t-care-about-your-feelings rebuke to abolishing schools, or even significantly rethinking the way they operate, is obvious. What are you going to do with all the free-range children you’ve created? In reality, most of them could go to work. The idea of children at work conjures an unfortunate image of David Copperfield weeping in a bottle factory. But it is sentimentality to think that to send them out into employment is crueller than keeping them locked up in school. I taught many pupils, boys in particular, who would have been far better off earning money and carving out a role for themselves in the world. Children who actually wanted to learn about the periodic table and read (urgh) Carol Ann Duffy could, of course, stay in school, and benefit from the enormously reduced class sizes.

Conservatives will naturally object to this most of all, because it sounds radical. Abolish schools? What next? Abolish prisons? Abolish the monarchy? As Emsley relates it, underneath the English practice of beating up schoolchildren lay an assumption that our ways were best, and the unique characteristics of our punishments were “part of the successful arrangement of the British constitution”. It was pure Burke in defence of pure stupidity, and a similar logic is in play with schools today.

Let’s take one example. Why do schools start early in the morning, even though teenagers have a different circadian rhythm to older people? Because that’s the way we do things. No more questions.

I do think, though, that it’s much more radical to entrust childcare to the average teacher than to abolish schools. Maybe the most flouted piece of legislation in this country — other than the one that says electric scooters can’t be used on public roads — is the part of the 1996 Education Act stating that governors and councils must ensure that the promotion “of partisan political views” is forbidden in schools. If you believe that, you’ll believe anything.

Over the past 11 months, parents have seen far more of their children’s education than ever before. The stuck-in-the-dark-ages lessons, packed with uninspiring content, led by too many for whom the profession is a last resort. For the first time, parents and children can be on the same page. They can see how much of the education sector is backwards and pointless. They can see how much needless anxiety it is causing children.

Traditionally, problems in the sector are solved by throwing money at them and hoping they go away. In this spirit, the Government announced last month a further £300 million of new money for catch-up summer schools. It doesn’t have to be that way. Give the money directly to parents to cover childcare costs and pay for private tutors, not to teachers who think that Greta Thunberg is a better “role model” than Admiral Nelson. Liberate them. Let a million teenagers go to work, to start filling those places left by the foreign workers who’ve fled the country. Let a million home-schooling cooperatives bloom. Let’s see so much of what we put children through at school for what it really is: cruelty that became invisible. Consign it all to the same dustbin as le vice anglais.