Education

The Problem with Authoritarian Schools

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Growing up, I can honestly say that most of my teachers were very good and were in the profession to help their students.

But some seemed to become educators so they could exert control over others – the Dolores Umbridges of the world.

This final group appears to be becoming more and more prevalent in our country in recent years. It may be tempting to argue that “children need to be taught respect”, and this is true. But some schools go beyond what is necessary to the point where some are doing more harm than good. 

It can be argued that school uniforms are a good thing that prepare students for the workplace as most people will work for a company with a uniform policy. It’s when school uniform policies start dictating things like student hairstyles, I have a problem.

Children, after all,  spend more time at home than in school, so what right does an overly controlling headteacher have to tell you what your child is allowed to look like?

Seemingly every other day, the Facebook group Angry People in Local Newspapers has a story of a child being suspended from school because their hair is slightly too long or too short among other petty reasons

The main argument used is that certain hairstyles would be too distracting. I thought school is meant to prepare children for the “real world”, and in the “real-world” people have different hairstyles – shocking I know! Besides, most workplaces don’t have haircut rules, and in restaurants, you can wear a hairnet, so the argument that such rules are there to prepare youngsters for the workplace is ridiculous. 

Suspending a child and denying them the right to education over such a minor issue is undoubtedly a breach of the Human Rights Act, which explicitly states that everyone has the right to education (though if Dominic Raab gets his way, this won’t be a problem). 

Most serious is that some hair rules are discriminatory. Hair grows differently depending on genetic factors you have no control over (e.g., students being sent home because of afros). Some religions have rules regarding hairstyles and some students have had these deeply held beliefs violated by schools

Thankfully, very few schools are run like these and most schools are fairly liberal when it comes to hairstyles Some schools, like Townley Grammar School in southeast London, are making real headway in promoting diversity and individual liberty in their schools by respecting their students enough to express themselves and removing discriminatory hair codes. 

One of the most reported examples of an overly controlling school administration in recent years is John Ferneley College in  Leicestershire. The new rules introduced by headmistress Natalie Teece at the start of the 2021/2 academic year have been widely criticized by the national media, even being compared to “a prison camp”.

Rules implemented are reviewed in The Times (which can also be found on Wikipedia) with the more notable being: 

  • Pupils are forced to always smile regardless of how they feel – which is very damaging to mental health
  • Never turn around (even after hearing a noise from behind).
  • Children are forced to make eye contact at all times – even though the school claims that amendments are made for students with SEND (Special educational needs and disability) this does not cover shy students, have undiagnosed autism, or just don’t want to.  
  • Don’t pick up stationery unless specifically directed to do so by staff.
  • Students learn to respond to whistles

If this were a failing school, I would be slightly less critical. But it was named the fourth-best in the county in 2018, so it would not be considered a troubled school, so drastic measures cannot be justified nor are they applicable to real life. 

Another example of a school taking this too far would be De Lisle College (again in Leicestershire), which has a sick bucket at the front of every classroom for ill students.  This is obviously incredibly humiliating for the students causing significant harm to mental health and is detrimental to physical health as it would encourage the spread of disease.

Such an insane decision by a school shows that the people running De Lisle College have no concern for either the children’s physical or mental wellbeing. Again, as with John Ferneley, students are forced to smile at all times. 

So, why does all of this matter?

Authoritarianism thrives on suppressing creativity and preventing people from thinking for themselves.  This is true not just for authoritarian governments but also in the education systems.

Supporters of an authoritarian education system often argue that students should sit down, listen to what they are being taught, and that schools should focus on the basics and teach marketable skills.

However, this is not transferable to post-secondary school life where learning tends to be more self-driven, and surely teaching students how to be more self-sufficient rather than suspending them over hair cuts and forcing them to smile would be better for society. 

But imagine a society build on the same ideology as these two schools in Leicestershire. It would be a society without any autonomy or personal freedom. You wouldn’t even be allowed to choose your haircut. If education is meant to prepare students for the future, what kind of future do you think these educators want?

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