From Guardian UK
More pupil power and less hierarchy in schools could better train children for life, an exhibition in south London reveals
While Thatcher took away free milk and Blair gave us academies, the coalition government's legacy is the controversial drive for even more free schools. The intention is to broaden education and increase choice. But tell that to the anarchist thinkers of the early 20th century, whose original free schools had little time for meddling ministers.
An exhibition in south London compares today's neo-liberal understanding of free school with past and present models of self-run education. And the artist behind it believes there's plenty both teachers and politicians could learn from a little anarchy in the UK.
Artist Adelita Husni-Bey's Playing Truant at Gasworks gallery in Vauxhall combines video and sound installations with drawing to explore the gaping discrepancy between the two free school models: one rooted in anarcho-collectivism, run without formal learning or hierarchy, and the other stemming from the increasing privatisation of education since the 1970s, and currently packaged up with the Conservative Party's much-contested notion of the 'big society'.
Anarchist education was first dreamt up by 19th century Spanish freethinker Francesc Ferrer i Guardia and led to the founding of a free school based on his ideas in New York in 1911 and later to the launch of the Ecole Vitruve school in France and Summerhill in the UK.
But while a revolution in the school corridors is unlikely nowadays, a reflection on how this radical model for education could benefit pupil learning, development and achievement could bring about a quiet but important change in how we teach the next generation.
Husni-Bey's video installation which documents a three-week workshop at a modern self-run primary school in Paris shows children have the capacity for decision making at a very young stage in their lives, according to exhibition curator Robert Leckie.
"Whenever there's a dispute or someone is upset, they instantly vote," Leckie explained.
"That's the reaction which is somehow in built. And they discuss things. So it's not that the children just fight or have these disputes and let them settle. There's this constant conflict resolution mentality that they're equipped with."
He added that teachers at these free schools have a much more personal and direct approach to learning, liberated from the constraints of bureaucracy and government dictates.
But what impact have these more radical educational models had on pupils? And what, if any, methods could teachers adopt to educating in their own classrooms?
While Leckie concedes many students found it harder to integrate into a society which is much more individualistic than the situation they have grown up with in their school, the increased capacity for decision making may give children a boost in altruism.
He said: "The pupils have an ability to think about education in broader terms - they have to wash up, clean and look after other children, training for life. They also have these forums for getting through disputes together as a group. Teachers aren't the only ones making decisions. It's about learning to think and make decisions for oneself rather than just being able to do well in a test.
"Now they have recently announced they want to push A-levels back two years and get rid of the AS level, you have an increased amount of examination. But all you're doing is gunning towards that goal rather than really thinking through stuff."
Indeed, education secretary Michael Gove's reforms to both A-levels and GCSEs have riled many a teacher, as a Guardian Teacher Network poll shows. Perhaps, during his next trip back in time for inspiration on how to shake up the education system, he could stop by an anarchist free school for some interesting food for thought?
"It's understanding that working together and real freedom of choice is very different from what is being promoted now," Leckie concluded.
"Things need to be seen through. Each time a government is elected they come up with a new campaign for education, but actually it avoids focussing on the broader picture. Instead politicians focus on the now and newspaper headlines and making sure that the legacy of the government in the short to medium term has a stamp on it, but actually in the broader field of education I don't think it's helpful."
Playing Truant will show at Gasworks gallery in Vauxhall until 3 February.