by John Shotton


Who reads histories of education? The only people who are obliged to do so are students in colleges, polytechnics and universities seeking degrees or diplomas to qualify them as teachers or as sociologists. A whole series of standard texts meets this need and most of them can be recognised as having a political bias, either towards the Right, with a belief in hierarchy, or towards the Left, with a belief in equality.
But in practice both celebrate a series of landmarks, not in education but in legislation, from the Education Act of 1870 which was alleged to have made elementary schooling free, compulsory and universal, down to the Education Act of 1944, providing secondary education for all. The authors of the standard histories are no doubt working at this moment on updated versions to incorporate the Education Reform Act of 1988 and its imposition of a National Curriculum on all schools controlled by the government.
The irony of this most recent landmark in the officially perceived history of education is that its instigators on the political Right ensure that their own children attend schools which are described as "independent" and consequently are not obliged to follow the National Curriculum. The response of the political Left is not to oppose the idea of a National Curriculum but simply to demand that it should be made obligatory in the "independent" sector too. (Labour Party policy document Looking to the Future, 1990).
Yet, as John Shotton shows in his Introduction, it is two hundred years since William Godwin set out with deadly and prophetic accuracy precisely why we should all oppose the very idea of a National Curriculum, regardless of its content. Indeed, part of my pleasure in the book before you is its establishment of Godwin, who is never mentioned in the textbooks for students of education, as an immensely significant philosopher of libertarian education.
But this is almost incidental to the main function of this book. To me it is the final part of a trilogy of books of the past ten years which, through painstaking and impeccable research, have turned the standard histories of education and their assumptions upside down. The first was Stephen Humphries' Hooligans or Rebels? An Oral History of Working Class Childhood and Youth 1889-1939 (Blackwell 1981). The second was Philip Gardner's The Lost Elementary Schools of Victorian England (Croom Helm 1984). 1 found both these books really exciting, which itself is a remarkable thing in the histories of education.
John Shotton is right to stress the importance of those suppressed Victorian working class schools which provided "an education that was fully under the control of its users." The historian Paul Thompson commented on the lessons of Gardner's research that "Victorian middle class experts regarded this distinctive educational system as inefficient. They had their way. The price was the suppression in countless working class children of the very appetite for education and ability to learn independently which contemporary progressive teaching seeks to rekindle. Universal education, in short, is not a good thing in itself. It has to be genuine education."
The search for genuine education is the theme of John Shotton's book. Its importance is that it surveys all the missing historical connections; the buried history of libertarian working class schools, the progressive school movement of the 20s and 30s, the attempts in the 60s and 70s to introduce the lessons of the progressive experiments into the official school system, and the "free schools" of the same period which sprang up as alternatives.
He makes no claims that cannot be backed up by evidence, and he looks especially for the evidence provided by children rather than by propagandists. He draws us into unexplored territory and reminds us that experiment is the oxygen of education. It dies without it. Plenty of people would claim that this death has already happened. Teachers could hardly have been more demoralised than they are in the 1990s, buried by a mountain of form-filling imposed by a government elected with slogans about "setting the people free", and with a policy described with incredible cynicism as "local management of schools."
Yet every year a new cohort of five-year-olds can't wait to get into school, while another of fifteen-year-olds can't wait to get out. Something has happened in the years between. Dare we call this process education?
John Shotton's book provides a response to this challenge, and it also ensures that all those textbooks on the history of education have to be seen as conspiracies to conceal the really significant happenings.

- Colin Ward

I detested school. Right from the start, until I managed to leave with enough qualifications to get into a university, my schooling was, in the teachers'eyes, unblemished by achievement. For me it was a nightmare of coercion and constraint. My memories of school in the 1960s focus specifically around the cane, detention and marks, and generally on the humiliation that accompanied these devices.
Imagine then the joy with which I, as an undergraduate in the early 1970s, discovered a dissenting tradition in British education. This discovery led to my working in a number of alternative education projects. Those experiences in their turn formed the inspiration for this book.
Whilst many historians have examined Britain's progressive educational history, little consideration has been given to the influence of libertarian ideas and practice in education. My research has revealed a rich tradition of libertarian educational theory and practice in Britain since 1890. The theory is highly distinctive, and the practice unique.
The libertarian critique of education is distinctive in the first place because of its emphasis on the right of learners to be recognised, treated and respected as autonomous individuals.
Secondly it emphasises the development of non-authoritarian pedagogies.
Thirdly it stresses the necessity of recognising the relationship between government and education as one determined by any government's need to subdue and repress its learners.
This critique and analysis is evident in the unique libertarian schools that have existed between 1890 and 1990, and in the pockets of libertarianism in other more generally liberal or progressive schools.
This book, then, is essentially an historical one which focuses attention on a lost history. Lost in the sense that what is known of libertarian education is rarely considered as such, and also in the sense that there have been a number of libertarian projects in education which require a very localised study in order to unearth them. This is hardly surprising as many such projects defied and resisted government controls and were related to the needs of individuals and individual communities.
However, this book is not simply an historical narrative where initiatives are merely described. I have attempted to place the various debates, analyses and projects within the socio-economic circumstances of their particular era, as well as more generally within the fi-amework of a capitalist society. In this sense I would argue that the context in which experimentation and development actually took place is crucial to any real understanding.
Further, I have tried, where possible, to evaluate the various libertarian initiatives and their impact as alternatives to, and for, the national state system of education.
Whilst researching and writing this book I have been fortunate to receive generous amounts of help and support. First and foremost my thanks go to all those who have enjoyed a libertarian education, who allowed me to pester them with my tape recorder. Thanks too, to the many people who talked to me about relatives who had either taught in or attended libertarian schools, and who supplied me with letters and diaries that took me right into the tradition. This research was a privilege for me.
A considerable number of poorly paid library staff in the British Library gave me enormous amounts of their time, retrieving uncatalogued journals and periodicals. I would particularly like to thank Edgar Weston and Caroline Williams.
I would also like to thank Ian Lister, Roy Carr-Hill, Colin Ward, Jan Bartholomew and Richard Musgrove for their reading of the script and their many observations.
Finally, special mention is due to Anthony George and Elaine Lee who helped type the script, and to the members of the Lib ED collective for their support, especially George Shaw, who undertook the considerable task of editing and typesetting this book. His advice and expertise have been invaluable.

John Shotton


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