TOP 2021-01-03

Abolition of Compulsory Education

Like many young people I had a very bad experience of school - but it was not because I disliked learning. On the contrary, I had a fiercely autodidactic instinct and still strongly believe that I could have learnt and achieved more if I had not gone to school.

I missed a lot of school due to regular nervous breakdowns, and towards the end only attended three days a week. Yet I still got the highest grade in all of my official school exams and ultimately went to university. I later became a programmer, but I didn’t learn programming at school, nor was my degree in a relevant subject. I first started programming at around the age of 9 and pursued it entirely in my free time. The reality is that this foundation, and not school per se, is the reason why I am qualified to do the job that I do. Certainly a level of mathematical ability is useful. But as a young person I had the motivation to study mathematics without being told to. Between the ages 16 and 18 I went to no maths classes at all, having convinced my teachers that I didn’t need to - and in terms of grades I did not disappoint them.

In my view, I achieved what I did not because of school, but in spite of it. In fact, since so much of my pain and suffering as a young person was directly related to the institutional setting of school itself, I can say with certainty that school was only a harmful experience for me, serving only to frustrate my enthusiasm for knowledge.

But am I just an unusual case? With a backstory like this I have been accused of being biased in my opposition to compulsory education. Yet even if it is only a minority of people who are forced into something that isn’t right for them, then we must question the wisdom of making this thing compulsory for everyone. With that in mind, we should ask ourselves if another world is possible.

The alternative vision

My argument against compulsory education is based firstly on the observation that it does things to young people that we would never consider acceptable if done to adults, an idea I will explore later. From this ‘human rights’ premise I conclude that the system as it is requires a compelling justification to be considered ethical. If an alternative, voluntary education system were possible, then such a justification would not be available. So let’s explore what a voluntarised system might look like and whether it is feasible.

I have to preface this by saying that I inevitably restrict my attention to the situation of developed countries - those that have the resources to invest heavily in education and in young people in general, but I will have more to say about this towards the end.

Merely abolishing the compulsory element of education is not likely to achieve much in the absence of accompanying changes in society. The changes I suggest (with detailed explanations to follow) are:

  1. Make it illegal for employers to discriminate against candidates based entirely on their level of schooling or grades achieved in school tests

  2. Liberalise the education system by paying out the education budget in the form of vouchers valid for a wide variety of learning resources, hence removing the state’s monopoly on the character of education

  3. Make it the right of children, not parents, to decide on their education and their future, using the model of supported decision-making which has been developed for people with disabilities

  4. In addition to education vouchers, pay out to all children and young people a basic income (and ideally, a universal basic income for all).

Discrimination on the basis of educational background

The very existence of obligatory schools divides any society into two realms: some time spans and processes and treatments and professions are “academic” or “pedagogic,” and others are not. The power of school thus to divide social reality has no boundaries: education becomes unworldly and the world becomes noneducational

– Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, p.12

Deschooling Society is a 1973 book by Ivan Illich, which argues for many of the points in my list of proposed reforms.

If children did not go to school, people fear that they would not do well in the job market. Leaving aside the fact that even with school, youth unemployment has recently been extremely high in many developed countries, leaving aside for the moment that it is probably automation, and not school drop-outs, that will pose the biggest threat to employment in the near future, one thing is striking about this fear: it is only bad for your employment prospects to drop out of school because we have decided to measure young people’s success by their level of schooling and their school grades. Yet none of this is inevitable.

Naturally employers need to be able to distinguish between suitable and unsuitable candidates. And in developed nations the world over there is often discontent from employers that the school system doesn’t supply them with the kind of candidate that meets their needs, prompting many an educational reform. So this, in my view, gets to the heart of the issue: the state school system is treated as a kind of outsourcing of training, with the taxpayer footing the bill. Of course, burdening employers with the full cost of education would be too much, but we can compromise.

Ivan Illich talks as if standardised tests are completely unnecessary for determining whether someone is suited to a job or not. Perhaps he didn’t anticipate just what things would be like in the neo-liberal reality of the 21st century with a few more billion people on the planet vying for a constantly shrinking number of jobs thanks to technological improvements. I don’t deny there are many ways to assess suitability without tests - a probing interview, a short probation period, evidence of a good internship or work placement, suitable prior experience and so on. But anything that requires an employer to do more than just look at a piece of paper with some grades written on it is going to cost some resources, and multiplied over many dozens of candidates this could be a significant expense. In this context, standardisation makes sense.

When my mother became unemployed in her 60s, she was baffled by employers’ insistence on knowing her school leaving grades. Presumably employers do this in the interests of fairness, but it leads to a quite bizarre situation. My mother couldn’t remember her grades, nor the content of the subjects she took in high school. Worse, since the education system had changed radically since she took the exams, her grades weren’t even comparable to modern grades anyway. Most of her interviewers were younger than her, so neither party had any idea what the exams she took were about, nor what the grades might actually signify, and yet she was still required to have those grades!

So the idea that you need school to get grades to get jobs is not exactly untrue, but it’s the silliness of this requirement that we need to be talking about. How good you were at analysing poetry when you were 16 probably has nothing to do with how good you’ll be at making spreadsheets when you’re 60. Yet this is the kind of requirement we impose on some people as a condition of offering them a job. I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable that we reform this.

First make it illegal for employers to discriminate against candidates on the basis of schooling. This is the proper way to ensure fairness - employers have to discriminate only on the basis of a candidate’s ability to do the job. No other factor should be relevant. It also supports the other reforms by allowing young people to decide on exactly how they want to navigate their educational and training journeys - they can decide which form of learning is best for them, whether it is in some kind of learning institution, auto-didactic, online classes, private tuition etc.

Employers meanwhile need to spend some money devising standardised testing procedures. In many industries these already exist, in accountancy for example. So there is nothing in principle preventing companies within an industry from co-operating on standards that they can all use. People can then prepare for these tests however they want to - and employers should not care how. They can recoup their costs by charging for people to take the test. So how should young people pay for such tests, and the learning resources needed to pass them, especially if they come from poorer backgrounds?

Education vouchers

The purpose of education vouchers is to allow people to fund any kind of learning or training they want, rather than being forced into a one-size-fits-all learning paradigm like a mainstream school. They can also fund any tests that they need to take in order to be qualified for particular jobs, or those that are required for university entrance.

Now in my country left-wing people tend to be quite horrified by any suggestion of privatising the education system, which is what I seem to be suggesting. In fact many people on the left oppose the very existence of any private schools that exist outside of the state sector. This is because it sets up an unfair hierarchy between richer and poorer families, where children with richer backgrounds can pay their way into better employment prospects and brighter futures. Private schools in England have the resources to give private tuition to help young people pass special entrance examinations, and hence send a disproportionate number of entrants to Oxford and Cambridge, which count among the world’s most prestigious institutions.

I don’t think that this is something to fear in the system I advocate here. Education remains state-funded, and educational vouchers can be used by anyone to contract private tuition if they need it. Moreover, so long as it is illegal for employers to require any particular educational background, we can erase much of the advantage people gain by being born into fortune.

In the USA there is scepticism of education vouchers for a different reason, as they are seen as a covert way of allowing parents to fund their children’s education at faith schools and hence acquire conservative Christian values. In my view, a secular government should refuse to redeem education vouchers at religious institutions. But more to the point, I don’t think parents should have any more right than the state to force a particular education on children, which is the next point I turn to.

Autonomy of young people and supported decision-making

In 2006, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (the CRPD)[1], which contained the quite radical idea that all persons with disabilities have legal capacity, meaning they have the right to make legally-binding decisions that affect their life. In many ways, people with a disability that affects their cognitive function are perhaps not dissimilar to children. We should therefore not be too shocked by the view that children should also be recognised as having legal capacity. Indeed, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child[2] refers to children’s “evolving capacities”, suggesting a basis for recognising their legal capacity, even if their ability to exercise it autonomously is initially limited.

Some people with disabilities can struggle to make decisions autonomously, so the CRPD suggests using the model of supported decision-making. In this model, the disabled person’s legal capacity is still recognised, but a trusted person can help them to make decisions that match their interests, will and preferences[3]. Many jurisdictions such as British Columbia, Canada have successfully implemented this model into their legal systems. It’s important to note that the role of supporters is not unlimited just because the disabled person needs some assistance. If a person struggles to make financial decisions, for example, they will promise their supporter(s) to consult them before making any financial decisions - but the supporter(s) have no right to interfere in other decisions in that person’s life.

This model supplants other models based on ‘substituted decision-making’. These older models assumed a disabled person’s incapacity and gave another person rights to make their decisions in an almost unlimited fashion, hence stripping the disabled person of any autonomy they might have had. In some cases like dementia, it has been shown that an assumption of incapacity can be harmful to the patient. If a person with dementia retains control over their life wherever they can exercise it, their outlook tends to be better[4].

If supported decision-making is successful for peole with disabilities, even severe ones, then why can it not also be used for children? Indeed, the system in British Columbia allows people to consent to supported decision-making even if they do not have ‘mental capacity’, even if they don’t meet the normal requirements for having the capacity to sign a contract, and without imposing any specific test of their capacity[5].

I believe there are several reasons why supported decision-making makes sense for children in addition to people with disabilities. While it is often thought that parents are a huge influence on their children and are able to control them and shape them according to their wishes, it is now recognised that children influence parents just as much as the other way around[6]. Thus when parents decide what toys to get their child, they have already been influenced by what interests the child has already shown, which colours they are drawn to, which toys they liked the most before and so on. When they decide what food to get, they take into account what their child has eaten the most of and what they have expressed dislike of. This in my opinion proves that supported decision-making is de facto already in daily use in the lives of children.

The same is true in the case of education. A movement called ‘unschooling’, popular in the USA among parents practising home-schooling, believes that children learn best by following their natural inclinations, and that parents have no need to impose any particular learning regimen, but only need to follow their child’s interests and provide them with the resources they need to explore them[7]. In my view this is a case of supported decision-making applied to education[8].

In addition to unschooling as a home-school philosophy, there are also schools set up with similar principles in mind, often called ‘free schools’. In Germany for example there are free schools where children can choose which classes to enroll in, or none at all, and participate in democratic decision-making bodies about what rules the school will have[9].

While I don’t claim that all alternative school systems are supremely successful, these free schools certainly have not been the horrible failures that you might expect if compulsion were a crucially important factor in getting children to learn things. Free schools have produced people who go on to have successful careers[10].

What is most important to note about free schools and unschooling is that they are perfectly legal in the countries where they exist. This means that multiple governments are already quite happy with the idea of children making their own choices about their learning goals.

Unfortunately most parents are not really qualified to be good education mentors for their children, and can’t afford the investment of time necessary for a successful ‘unschooling’. In addition, there aren’t enough free schools available for all children to go to, since they generally don’t receive state funding.

This is why the education vouchers are crucial. Rather than getting all schools to be ‘free schools’ or all parents to be ‘unschoolers’, we can just let the market supply a diversity of options. Existing schools would inevitably have to adjust and restructure themselves to be places that children would willingly want to attend, and an entire ecosystem of private tuition services would presumably grow in demand, since they would be more financially accessible.

Taking another cue from Ivan Illich, it would also be necessary for children to have access to education mentors who can act as their supporters in making education-related decisions, and hence make up for unqualified parents. The role of such mentors is just to point people in the right direction and make them aware of what resources are available to help with the person’s current goals. They don’t substitute parents or teachers.

Here is a possible scenario I imagine (though it is by no means prescriptive). The child shows an interest in a certain subject. Parents/supporters contact a mentor who suggests relevant books or online resources that would help to develop that interest. The child consumes the resources and is still interested, so the mentor suggests relevant courses that are being run in the area. If the child’s literacy skills aren’t up to scratch yet, they additionally suggest literacy resources or classes to match their current stage of development. The child decides to go ahead, so the mentor gets paid in vouchers, and more vouchers go towards enrolling in the courses. Having made the investment and risen to the challenge, now the child has to put in the work. At this point it’s immaterial what kind of teaching methods are used in the courses. The important thing is that the child was at the centre of the journey, even if they needed assistance to find the path. Naturally, a young person with more developed ideas might not need the mentor’s help or anybody’s encouragement, but at least they have the option of contracting them if they do get stuck.

A basic income for children and young people

Proponents of a ‘universal basic income’ suggest that instead of unemployment benefits, every citizen should be entitled to an income that isn’t conditional on working or willingness to work. I have previously argued that this income should also be extended to children and young people at at least the same level as adults in order to pay for childcare and give young people control over the kind of care services they receive, but a basic income for young people does not depend on the UBI being implemented, and can be considered a separate demand.

For voluntarising education, the basic income for children is important for two reasons. Firstly it means that all children have a starting point where their basic needs are met - housing, food, clothes and so on - which are prerequisites for successful personal development. Currently, so many children are affected by poverty, even in developed countries, that their education is affected. Social problems in the home and the community, as well as problems more directly caused by poverty such as hunger and nutrient deficiencies, can affect people’s concentration and mental health, which in turn makes it hard to succeed at school. The basic income, which is supplemental to education vouchers, is intended as a replacement for inadequate ‘child benefit’ payouts, allowing children to satisfy their basic needs with their own money.

Secondly, since the basic income I propose is also intended to cover the costs of care, it means that parents don’t need to insist that their children attend school where it remains illegal to leave the child at home alone and they can’t afford another option. With supporters’ help children can fund whatever care arrangements make the most sense for them, so that they can learn auto-didactically, or only go into school part-time, or see a tutor at a time that’s convenient for them, rather than working around school and parents’ schedules.

Comparing the Current System and the Proposed Alternative

The Harm of Compulsory Education

I am as aware as the most outspoken radical that our schools have become much like prisons, complete in some cases with barbed wire barricades, metal detectors, random locker searches, uniforms, prohibitions on personal articles, drug testing, armed guards, undercover police, video surveillance, and chemical control over those who will not submit

The Ascent of Humanity by Charles Eisenstein, writer and former teacher[11]

The International Labour Organization defines forced labour as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily”[12]. In my view it would be difficult to argue objectively that compulsory education and schoolwork don’t meet this definition when taken literally: schoolwork and homework are undoubtedly types of “work or service” which are “exacted” from young people. Truant officers and parents have the right to compel young people into the institutional arrangements that exact this work, and schools knowingly apply penalties and punishments to children who fail to complete the work set, including detaining children in a classroom at their discretion.

The ILO lists a number of exceptions where forced labour is permitted, such as compulsory military service, but compulsory education is not mentioned as one of them, not even under the category “normal civic obligations”[13]. While obviously the UN does consider compulsory education to be permissible, exceptions to the ILO and to human rights considerations in general are made on the basis of principled deliberation and political acceptability at the time; international treaties and organisations still expect to restrict the scope of these exceptions only to where they are strictly necessary.

In my view we should be very concerned indeed about doing something to children and young people which would count as a human rights violation if done to adults. Consequently, we should view compulsory education not as a shining beacon of hope, rather it is at best a necessary harm, whose legitimacy hangs in the balance, crucially dependent on the demonstrable non-existence of any viable alternative. Corporal punishment of children, while once thought justifiable on the basis of its necessity for good “discipline” has recently been reassessed as a harm and as a rights violation, and I believe we must go through the same process of realisation for other ways young people are treated, including compulsory education.

While now banned in most jurisdiction, corporal punishment of students is still practised in some schools around the world[14]. In the absence of corporal punishment, children are still often shouted at, verbally abused, humiliated and made to feel inferior, usually in front of a large group of peers. Because of a lack of time and pressure to push forward with their material, teachers often can’t stop to consider how to minimise the emotional effects of their punishments; they frequently punish an entire class, even if only a minority were being disobedient. Children have to ask permission to leave the room even to use the toilet - a permission which can be refused - and as a punishment, pupils can be detained at a teacher’s discretion, and are denied some of their rest or after-school time. Students are forced to do ‘overtime’ at home, with the threat of punishment if they do not complete an assignment.

For many, school can also be a physically as well as mentally demanding place, not just because of coerced sporting activities, but due to having to carry around heavy books and other equipment, sometimes across large distances between classes. If they leave out a book that a class requires, they may face a punishment or scolding. Needless to say, none of these practices would be considered even remotely acceptable - neither legally nor morally - if they were applied in an adult context, such as a workplace or an adult learning centre.

Much research shows that consistently high levels of the stress hormone cortisol are associated with increased disease risk and negative health outcomes. When considering this phenomenon - often called ‘toxic stress’ - the majority of reports about children and young people tend to focus on every possible cause of stress other than school itself. In some cases, however, the “pressure to excel” is cited as a possible stressor[15][16].

The WHO reports that 10–20% of adolescents suffer from some kind of mental health problem[17]. Statistics from the UK government report that the prevalence of mental health issues increases throughout adolescence, reaching about 16% among 16–19 year olds, which is similar to the adult rate[18]. The rate of self-harm, however, is significantly higher among young people than adults[19]. Since most mental health conditions have their genesis in youth, we can conclude that whatever young people experience in their adolescence is formative for their health outcomes later in life.

There is little evidence in the mainstream literature to support a direct link between compulsory education and health risk - and in any case we could not reasonably claim that the reality is anywhere near as simplistic as this, given the number of family and social issues children also face. My argument is therefore based primarily not on specific health risks, but on the lack of autonomy young people experience in response to them. Young people don’t get to choose their families or communities, and they don’t get enough support to escape from abusive situations. That is why I propose a basic income for young people and the transfer of rights away from parents and towards young people themselves, with supported decision-making, to empower them to find better living arrangements and better circumstances.

School puts young people at risk of bullying, which itself is linked to worse health outcomes[20], and in some countries such as the USA, children are even exposed to the risk of school shootings. And while bullying and shootings can and do also happen in workplaces and public places, the crucial difference is that adults have chosen to attend those specific spaces. It is one thing to be exposed to a risk, but morally it is much worse to be exposed to a risk by force.

One relevant finding from neuroscience is that the pain of social exclusion is similar to physical pain, and can arise even in apparently minor situations such as being ignored[21]. Although social exclusion can easily happen in young people’s peer groups, much less attention is paid to the systematic social exclusion that results from treating young people as unfree beings, segregating them from society in separate institutions. Whenever a young person is excluded from a cinema because of a film certificate, sees a notice on a website that they must be over a certain age to participate, or is excluded from a social event or venue, this is a micro-instance of social exclusion, and we should be surprised if it does not cause the same kind of pain that we find in other studies of this phenomenon.

Parents and teachers frequently ignore, sideline or flat-out forbid the views, ideas, needs and preferences of young people as a direct result of parental guardianship and compulsory education, which decrees in advance what is “best” for them. Being given a school detention is social exclusion. Being excluded from business and employment because you have to be at school is also a form of exclusion. Having to wait to be “old enough” to go to university even if you are already a child prodigy is also exclusionary. Some would argue that these forms of exclusion are justified - I’ll come back to that - but for the moment the important point is that this exclusion exists, and that it causes pain. This is not something we should be happy about.

For people with disabilities, many reports attest that maintaining and supporting the person’s autonomy is important not just for their sense of dignity but also for their prognosis. The UK’s social care service, for example, notes that direct payments to people with care needs can be better for their care outcome than the provision of standardised services[22]. So granting autonomy appears to be beneficial, and conversely denying autonomy is generally harmful. Many studies report that “job strain” - a combination of high pressure and low decision-making power - is linked to adverse health outcomes in the workplace[23]. The right to liberty is a highly valued human right. We should be very surprised indeed if young people were exceptional, thriving under conditions of coercion in order to prepare them for a world where they thrive under the completely opposite conditions of autonomy and independence instead.

The forced institutionalisation of a group, such as Muslims, in a re-education camp, is rightly considered a human rights violation, even if the government might justify such action as being in the “best interest” of its detainees. Our attitude to compulsory education therefore needs to come from a baseline of scepticism. According to the UN Declaration, human beings are “born” equal in rights and dignity, strongly implying that they ought to apply to children; moreover, rights and freedoms apply to everyone “without distinction of any kind”[24]. Consequently we should view compulsory education as something that demands not just legal justification, but compelling legal and moral justification; if permitted it should be permitted regrettably, and if applied it should only be in proportion to its necessity, and under strict controls.

A relevant example is when actions are “politically motivated”. Arbitrary detention and arrest, or denials of freedom of speech or assembly, are not justifiable if they are seen to be “politically motivated”. Yet politicians certainly have the motive to apply compulsory education for political reasons. With high levels of youth unemployment, an increase in the school leaving age is a quick fix: it fudges the statistics so that unemployment appears to be lower. Moreover, since young people are denied the right to vote, political manoeuvres that negatively affect school students can be applied with effectively no risk to a party’s election chances. As soon as the victims become eligible to vote, they will no longer be affected, and likely won’t punish a party for any abuses they experienced as young people. After all, by this point they will have been socialised to accept that the subjugation of young people is normal, which is what allows this cycle to continue.

Is the Harm Worth It?

[The child] becomes an object of parents’ expectations and the parents’ ideas about how to bring up children, parents’ hopes and desires and whatever else there may be… We know from neurobiology that this hurts… And I can say as a brain scientist: neither a child nor an adult can develop their inner potential like this. That can only happen in a co-creative process with others that I encounter as a subject, [not an object]. Everything else is not education, but rather acquisition of knowledge about how to overcome the problem of being constantly objectified

– Gerald Hüther, brain scientist[25]

In at least some respects, the current system is failing even on its own terms. In many developed countries, youth unemployment has been higher than unemployment in other age groups[26], and reached extreme levels during the financial crisis. Even people with degrees can struggle to get good jobs, and find they are considered ‘over-employed’ for less skilled jobs. Although it is not compulsory education per se that is at fault for these problems, we can at least see that the current system, despite demanding so much of young people, cannot even promise the one thing it is supposedly designed for, that is, to help people get good jobs.

An EU report claims that 17% of 15 year-olds and 16.4% of people aged 16 and over have difficulties with reading and writing[27] - a phenomenon which is elsewhere known as functional illiteracy. The precise statistics differ based on how functional illiteracy is defined, but reports abound of the existence of millions of adults with literacy difficulties in almost every developed country[28]. Local authorities and businesses end up spending significant resources taking remedial action for adults with literacy problems. Sending free books to parents to help their children read is suggested as an early intervention too. What is very curious about this is that proposing an intervention for children that takes place outside of school presupposes that school isn’t good enough to teach one of the most basic of skills.

Although I couldn’t make any hard claims about the sort of literacy rates we could expect from my proposed alternative system, I can say that resources for remedial interventions are built right into it. If for whatever reason a young person doesn’t gain good functional literacy skills in early life, they can use their remaining education vouchers later in life to take additional classes or acquire relevant resources, if they realise their lack of skills has become a serious problem for them. And rather than hoping to be part of a well-meaning local authority scheme that sends out books, education vouchers allow children, through their supporters/parents as appropriate, to get books and other relevant materials independently. As discussed, there should also be a role for more qualified education mentors or supporters to advise parents and children about educational matters too.

The argument that school is necessary for finding good jobs is weakened further when we consider that many young people get good jobs, legally, even before they leave school, by becoming actors or pop stars, for example. Yet they are still expected to attend school. Now admittedly, a person’s career in the entertainment industry can be fleeting and uncertain, so it makes sense to have backup plans. But burdening a person with school and a career at the same time is asking a lot - with so much work to juggle there is obviously a risk that at least one will suffer. We are putting a lot of confidence in the school system if we think this is justfied - confidence which, as we’ve seen, might in any case be misplaced. Does it make sense to jeopardise someone’s actual job for the sake of an education that is supposed to help them get a job?

Again, the voucher system makes more sense. Young people can save up their education vouchers while they focus on their career; then, when the limelight stops shining on them, they can spend their saved vouchers on education and retraining to help them get a different job.

Some people will argue that one of school’s advantages is that it exposes young people to a broad range of subjects so that they can find out what they are good at and what interests them. I can see how this implies the usefulness of taster lessons and education fairs, but I cannot see how it justifies a compulsory learning programme. In the context of my proposed voluntary system, it makes sense that educators would hold events where they set up stalls and distribute pamphlets and adults make animated gesticulations about the joys of chemistry or the vital relevance of history to present day issues. Appealing to a young person’s curiosity, or logic about why a certain course might be useful to them, or just good fun, sounds like it ought to be just as effective, if not more so, than forcing people to learn things they have no interest in.

Others might think compulsory education is justified because young people have a greater capacity for learning than older people. And while this is true, so is the converse: no longer young, a person has a great capacity for forgetfulness. Anything learned in school that isn’t regularly practised or applied is going to be pruned out of our neural structures.

Moreover, even if learning is easier when you are young, the relevance of a “crucial period” for successful learning can be overstated. Studies have shown that if you don’t learn your first language within a crucial window in the first years of life, you will never be able to learn it properly again, and there are similar findings for the devleopment of healthy vision[29]. But all that is necessary to learn your first language or develop healthy vision is to be exposed to relevant stimuli. Because the brain appears to be ‘hard-wired’ to acquire these skills, and therefore brings innate capacities with it to help this process succeed, no specific teaching method, let alone compulsory education, is necessary to ensure that this happens. Children only fail to learn their first language under conditions of very extreme abuse and neglect[30].

In contrast, since reading, writing and numeracy are more advanced human abilities, evolutionary biology has not had chance to equip us with an innate toolset for their acquisition. Consequently, they are acquired using general cognitive abilities, which in turn means that there is no criticial window for learning them: a person can become fully literate at any age.

So we do not have a compelling argument from neurobiology for the idea that we have to learn things as a young child in order to be capable of learning them at all. That means that even if a young child in the alternative system was less educated than a same-aged child in the current system, this isn’t a serious enough problem to justify the use of coercion. With the right support, young people are perfectly capable of catching up to others who may have started learning earlier or more diligently.

Does Compulsion Even Work?

In developing countries, many parents keep their children out of school so that they can make them work for the family’s subsistence. Even though education is compulsory, families with low incomes will still hold their children back from school attendance. Quite apart from guaranteeing children an education, compulsory education in these situations just means that parents end up breaking the law. The situation is actually similar in developed countries too. The children most at risk of dropping out of school are those from low income or disadvantaged backgrounds. The fact that education is compulsory does not stop them from dropping out. Worse than that, if they do attend school they are also the same kind of student that is likely to do badly. This might be because of poor living conditions, nutritional problems, family problems and many other reasons. They become ‘problem children’, often get shunted around between different schools, and are most likely to be among those termed functionally illiterate when they finally leave school.

In other words, the people who want to drop out of school are either prepared to just flout the law, or they aren’t prepared to flout it and end up just failing at school. Arguably, the use of compulsion is ineffective. What is more effective is getting to the route of the issue. Economic development is crucial, both to give young people the means to focus on learning, and to make sure young people have access to a variety of learning resources.

Some people will still worry that children won’t have enough motivation to get an education if they aren’t compelled. I personally think this is a vanishingly unlikely possibility so long as we can address the economic and social inequalities that make it hard for people to devote time to education. If people have both the means and the resources at their disposal, there are overwhelming incentives to take advantage of them. As we have seen, social exclusion is known to be a painful experience. If you are a child and you see how everyone around you is using written words and numbers, you will sooner or later feel left out if you can’t understand them. Similarly, once you become aware that learning is a prerequisite of achieving the vast majority of life aspirations, and of earning good money, you will likely not want to be left out of the world of work. Needless to say, money is a powerful motivator.

Potential Benefits of the Proposed Alternative

If children and young people only attended classes that they were genuinely motivated to attend, a whole host of common school problems would be avoided. Educators currently spend enormous effort and resources on “behaviour management” and the promotion of “discipline” which would scarcely be necessary at all if students were willing participants in their lessons with a right of exit. Since young people would not attend classes that they had no interest in, and wouldn’t waste time learning material that was not useful to them or which they would only forget shortly after finishing, the amount of time spent on education in youth would also decrease. With smaller class sizes and less time needed on “behaviour management”, we can expect the quality and efficiency of learning to increase dramatically. This all translates into cost savings, which can either be invested in the basic income that I propose, or re-invested to improve the quality of the educational resources on offer.

Since young people have to find their own motivation in the proposed system, rather than only attending school “because I have to”, we can expect that they will more often choose to follow career-motivated learning pathways. Combined with the reform to recruitment, which becomes much more about preparing for career-specific certifications, or demonstrating relevant experience, we might expect employment candidates to be more prepared for the job market than they are now.

In addition, if young people already have experience of managing and spending their education vouchers, they are likely to be better at managing money and making financial decisions in the future. More generally, being empowered to make decisions, and being entrusted with responsibility over your own future from an early age, might prove to be a good way of developing into a generally responsible and autonomous person with clearer goals, sharper boundaries and a more informed identity and sense of self.

Abolition as Social Justice

Perhaps what you’re thinking right now is, but wait a second Heather, there’s brain science, young people’s brains, there’s underdevelopment… But I will argue that brain science and brain size and shape have long been used as a tool for oppression. It wasn’t that long ago that it was argued that women’s brains are smaller and that’s why they shouldn’t vote. Or perhaps that African Americans’ brains were smaller and that justified a lot of the horrific acts before the civil rights movement… Brain science has always been used as a tool to “other” people

– Heather Kennedy, youth engagement expert[31]

My view is that children and young people are an oppressed group in an adultist society, which is comparable to how ableism discriminates against persons with disabilities. As we will see in this section, the way that young people are oppressed closely mirrors the way that women in patriarchal societies are treated, and has parallels with every other kind of social justice movement, such as racial equality, mental health rights, animal rights and LGBTQ rights.

Just like with women, non-white and native peoples, Jews and non-human animals, the way that young people are treated is often justified (by their oppressors) with reference to biological differences between them and ‘normal people’. Or, in the case of women and people with disabilities, by the group’s supposed ‘lack of capacity’. Children are seen in a similar way to indigenous peoples, with white people justifying their authority over them by their lesser state of development and their need to be “civilised”.

To talk about mental capacity, let’s first recognise the ambiguity of the word “child”. Legally it could refer to anyone under the age of majority, yet obviously there are huge changes that happen in this age range. Taking the newborn baby who needs their diapers changed for them, the toddler playing with bricks, the older child playing the violin, the younger teen who is already taller than their grandmother, and the older teen who has just passed their driving test, it is ridiculous to lump all of these people together under the category “child” and expect that we can make sweeping generalisations about how we should treat them based on this categorisation.

This can lead to a logical fallacy: “a toddler lacks mental capacity”, “toddlers are children”, “17 year olds are also children”, “therefore 17 year olds lack mental capacity”. Some people might fall into this trap unknowingly, others might deliberately use the ambiguity of the word “child” to extend their control over young people.

There is no scientific evidence that age per se determines a person’s mental capacity. Yet discrimination by age is deeply woven into the legal systems of every country in the world. The reality is that, while following a broad pattern, young people develop at different rates. The age at which someone learns to talk, the age someone starts puberty, or the age someone stops getting taller, can vary by several years. In the vast majority of cases these variations are perfectly normal and not pathological. Therefore a person’s capacity or stage of development should be judged based on the fact of their capacity, and not based on their age.

For example, in many legal systems an adult is considered to have capacity to sign a contract if they “understand the nature and effect” of the contract. If we are able to use this test in our legal systems for adults, then there is no reason why we cannot hold young people to the same test. The CRPD helps us to lift the veil. Whereas previously people with disabilities were assumed to be incapable based entirely on the fact that they “have a disability”, the CRPD makes it clear that this is a form of unjust discrimination, and proposes instead that all people should be equal before the law.

As we have seen, a person’s capacity in any case gives us no justification at all for oppressive measures against them - it merely gives us a reason to use supported decision-making. Historically it was normal for people considered “mentally ill” to be imprisoned in asylums and mental institutions and segregated from the rest of society. Their lives were controlled by institution staff “for their own good” and they were forced to ingest medication whether they consented or not.

Unfortunately this practice still has not been completely abolished, but for the most part, in recent years society decided that the consequences of giving these people freedom were not that bad after all. We now all accept the fact that “mentally ill” people live with us in the community, and health services provide help, support and medication on a voluntary basis. Meanwhile article 12 of the CRPD effectively forbids all forms of forced institutionalisation and grants legal capacity to all people regardless of their mental health “status”.

Children and young people frequently express their discontent and objection to school, homework, school rules and parental authority. Yet such objections are interpreted by adults as “teenage angst”, or even medicalised as mental disorders. Even cries for help in the form of self-harm, dramatic notes and social media posts, and suicide attempts, are dismissed as the product of an “edgy teenager”. Thus the treatment of young people closely mirrors the way that women are silenced and their discontent dismissed as being “hysteria” or mere “PMS”.

For a long time, “hysteria” was even considered a medical condition, unique to women, which was “scientifically” explained as a woman’s lack of male input in their life - the “cure” being to marry, accept a husband’s sexual advances and have children, precisely what we might expect men to want of women in a patriarchal society[32]. After being reappraised by feminists in the 20th and 21st centuries, the history of hysteria shows us that cultural biases and prejudice do not get left behind when scientists enter the lab or write up their findings. Homosexuality, too, was considered a mental illness by mainstream science until very recently.

It’s time to reappraise young people in a similar light, as an oppressed group in society. We need a social justice movement that stands up to this oppression in the very same way and for the very same reasons that feminism stands up to patriarchy.

Age as a Socially Constructed Label

After all, adults too are only human. When I look at people who are legally considered to belong to the group called “adults”, I see very emotional, floundering, blundering, unreasonable people, who are sometimes completely overwhelmed and are at a loss, who don’t always have everything under control, who also still like to stomp in mud and play and cry, but just don’t allow themselves to show any of this

– Helen Britt, of the Naiv-Kollektiv[33]

For some time now in gender studies it has been accepted that gender is socially constructed. While that does not deny that differences in sex characteristics are objective, what it means is that the gender labels that we assign to people, and how we expect people to behave based on those labels, are cultural artifacts that we are socialised to accept, not objective facts. Stereotypes like “women are weak”, “women must shave their body hair”, “men should not cry” and “real men eat meat” derive from socially constructed gender labels, with no basis in reality.

Age can also be seen this way. Different cultures can even have different rules about how to calculate someone’s age, in addition to different laws about what different ages signify about the kinds of behaviour we should expect or not expect, support or condemn. Although chronological age can indeed be objective, the reality is that different people develop different capacities at different rates and to different extents, which means that the age label that we attach to someone tells us nothing about their maturity, much less about how we should relate to that person and what kind of institutional arrangements we should or should not force upon them.

The evidence does not support the idea that adults are perfect well-rounded beings, better in every respect than young people (much less that they become so precisely on cue on the very nanosecond of their 18th birthday, or whenever culture and law decide it happens). Adults are capable of making atrociously bad life choices. Adults can be terrible at making financial decisions. They can be terrible at making good dietary and nutritional decisions. They decide to drink heavily and endanger their own and others’ lives by drinking and driving. Adults can have very poor empathy, and in positions of power they can devastate whole nations. Yet we have examples like Malala Yousafzai, who stood up to the Taliban as a “child” to oppose the closure of girls’ schools[34] - young people who know what they’re talking about, standing up in opposition to adults who are making bad decisions.

Knowing this, how can we sincerely reserve the label “immature” just for children and young people? To privilege the ‘mental capacity’ and ‘maturity’ of these kinds of people purely on the basis of their age is itself a huge error of judgement. When we talk about an adult being “immature” we tend to do so not on the basis of the stupid behaviour they demonstrate, but by comparison with a stereotype of a young person. Hence we have expressions like “grow up” or “act your age”, and we use words like “childish” as an insult, as if stupidity is a measure of how comparable you are to a child, and not on how illogical your actions are or how much harm you cause to yourself and others.

The only biologically valid concepts we can use would lead us to ask questions like “what is this person capable of?” and “what kind of decisions does this person need help with?” The question “how old are they?” serves only to distract us from the facts, inviting us to fall back on unhelpful stereotypes. We try to reject these stereotypes when women or black people are the ones being stereotyped. When we start to see the oppression of young people as a social justice movement, we will wake up to how regressive our stereotypes are.

Parental Authority

Good parenting is crucially important for young people, and there are many very good parents out there. Parenting is a caring relationship - it means helping someone to meet their needs. A good parent should want what is best for their child, even if it conflicted with the parent’s own hopes or goals. Yet many parents think they have a right to control their child in any way they please, just “because I said so”. Best interests be damned! “My child, my choice” was the mantra of some parents in the UK who wanted to prevent their children from learning about homosexuality in sex education lessons. Parents evidently feel their children are their private property, and that they have a right to dispose of their property how they will.

People talk about “parental authority” as if it were some kind of natural law. From my point of view, “parental authority” as a concept is as illegitimate as a concept of “male authority” used to justify the “naturalness” of the patriarchal family, as spurious as “white supremacy”, backed up by flimsy pseudo-science to justify the subjugation of non-white peoples.

More than any other mammal, human beings are readily prepared to give up the care of their children to others, as we regularly do when we pass the child to the babysitter or the school teachers. One thing that is arguably “natural” about the parent-child relationship is the maternal bond, present in most large mammals, owing to the fact that newborn mammals are relatively helpless and require significant extra input of care and maternally-supplied nutrition to become capable of surviving.

Paternal input is of lesser importance, and anthropologically it is quite normal in human societies for fathers to have no input at all in their children’s care - in fact, uncles and brothers play a larger role in some human societies. At the same time, even phenomena like the maternal bond for which we have an explanation in evolutionary biology, are not set in stone. With similar kinds of care and nutrition supplied by other sources, children can grow up just as well without a mother. In some cases, where a mother is abusive and unfit to be a parent, we generally accept that it’s legitimate for the state to intervene and transfer the child to the care system. What counts is what is best for the child, not respect for the “authority” of the parent.

It is dangerous and wrong to confuse a caring relationship with a coercive one. Only in patriarchy would we agree that if a man cares about a woman it means he intends to control her.

The problem of child abuse is much more serious than many realise. So much of society’s anxiety and energy are fixated on the spectre of the “pedophile hiding in the bushes” that it fails to see that the biggest risk to a child is the family itself. Child abuse, whether physical, emotional or sexual, is most commonly committed by family members, including parents[35].

Parents have no specific qualifications that lend them any “authority”. Their children are not their private property. Yet parents think they are entitled to control their children even when it is demonstrably not in their best interest - getting the child circumcised for entirely religious reasons, for example, or refusing to have the child vaccinated against serious diseases because of superstitious or pseudoscientific beliefs.

In my view, we are definitely justified in vaccinating very young children, even if they can’t consent and don’t appear to be willing. We can do this for the same reason that we can pull someone out of the road if they don’t realise they are about to get knocked over, even though we didn’t get their consent. Or we can give someone life-saving surgery if they are found unconscious and can’t agree to the procedure. In short, we are justified in acting to save someone from imminent danger if they are not aware of that danger. Early childhood diseases are such a high risk and are so dangerous for the child that we cannot afford to wait until they become aware of this risk and able to make up their own mind. Just like giving life-saving surgery to an adult in a coma, we are arguably not just justified, but morally obligated to act in this way.

Our moral obligations towards children are therefore not dissimilar to those we have towards all people in similar kinds of circumstances. We do not need to appeal specifically to notions of “informed consent” or “mental capacity” - and certainly not “age” - even if these concepts are contextually relevant in the background. Once a person gains (or regains) awareness of their situation, or if they are no longer in imminent danger, then we are obligated to respect their autonomy and personhood. As we have seen, if their capacity is limited for any reason, we can use tools like supported decision-making.

In many cases there will indeed be grey areas and times where it’s difficult for supporters to know how to act, such as when dealing with people with severe disabling conditions like brain damage or dementia[4].

But the alternative is worse. People with disabilities were previously treated with substituted decision-making, using the legal instrument called guardianship, effectively the same instrument that applies to people considered not to have reached “majority”. Theoretically, guardians are supposed to act in their charge’s best interest, but in practice there are few legal checks that this is the case. For children, there are many instances where the law knowingly subverts this principle, most notably in the case of non-medical circumcision.

Guardianship is increasingly seen not just as old-fashioned, but as actively dangerous for people with disabilities[3]. The CRPD has resolved to eliminate it. Despite grey areas and difficult decisions, supported decision-making provides better outcomes and is less prone to abuse. This is the route that we now need to take for young children.

On Informed Consent

It is often argued that although young people might be able to give their notional “consent”, it cannot be “informed” consent. But what does “informed consent” mean? If we take it literally, it would mean being informed while consenting.

Yet it only takes a moment’s reflection to realise that adults regularly consent to arrangements without being informed - unless you seriously believe that everyone dutifully reads through the terms and conditions and privacy policy of every website on the internet that they use, and the license agreement of every piece of computer software they install. In fact I imagine it is quite common indeed for adults to sign their employment contracts and rental agreements either without having read them, or without having understood every clause in them.

It is often said that parents are justified in controlling what their children eat because children can’t make informed choices about nutrition. Yet adults are also pretty poor at making informed nutritional choices, as evidenced by the prevalance of certain nutrient deficiencies among adults, even in developed countries. Most adults probably don’t know that Cassia cinnamon contains a substance that can be toxic to the liver and carcinogenic[36] - and many cinnamon products don’t even state on the packaging which kind of cinnamon they are. Nobody asks a customer buying red meat whether they are informed that it’s classified as a carcinogen, and if they aren’t buying red meat, that they should understand the need to have vitamin C in their meals to help absorb non-heme iron. In fact many adults not only don’t know facts about nutrition, but actually make decisions based on myths and false beliefs, such as the idea that meat is the only valid source of protein.

Interestingly, while we don’t ask people buying alcohol to confirm their knowledge about the many risks and dangers involved in consuming it, in many jurisdictions we do ask people to confirm their age, as if that would really automatically imply an informed understanding of this complex subject. One might argue that it would be a fault of the compulsory education system if it didn’t confer this understanding of alcohol’s dangers - but that would only justify the specific age gate that we apply to alcohol purchases if that’s when those lessons take place. If we made sure to give young people lessons about the dangers of alcohol at, say, 13, then presumably we would be justified in lowering the age gate to 13, and would not be justified in having a later age gate because, under these assumptions, the person would definitely be “informed”.

But in reality there are plenty of adults who do not really know much about the risks they are taking with their consumption choices, or about whether their eating habits are really giving them all the nutrients their body needs, and what the consequences are of that not being the case. Can we therefore justify forcing these people into ‘nutrition academies’, for example, in order to save them from the peril of being an uninformed decision-maker? And what about all those ToC’s they’re clicking through without the faintest idea what they’re agreeing to?

Something tells me that this isn’t actually the definition of informed consent that most people are using. Perhaps it’s not about being de facto informed, but about having the mental capacity to understand the relevant information if they are presented with it.

It’s interesting to note from the outset that if one follows a consequentialist ethical philosophy - where the consequences for wellbeing are the only morally relevant factors, not abstract ethical principles - then there would be no ethical difference between someone being (a) uninformed but theoretically capable of understanding, and (b) being uninformed but not being capable of understanding. In both cases someone makes an uninformed decision and may subject themselves to risks they didn’t intend to take on.

However, I don’t intend to argue from the perspective of any particular ethical framework. Instead I argue that most children and young people absolutely are able to understand information relevant to decision-making if they are presented with it, and that we routinely contradict ourselves if we think otherwise.

In the mainstrem education system we expect a lot of young people in art, science, sport, music and writing. No job and no lifestyle in the world demands the kind of breadth and level of understanding that our school system thrusts upon young people. Yet young people routinely come through this system with the kind of grades which we presumably believe to be indicative of their success in understanding this information.

We expect young people to understand trigonometry, linear and quadratic equations, the greenhouse effect and the chemical formula for photosynthesis; we expect them to understand deep and hidden meanings in literature and poetry; we expect them to understand the motivations of kings, queens and military leaders making great and terrible decisions in their historical context - yet we apparently don’t expect them to understand their own motivations right now, that would help them make their own decisions.

Consider the fact that at the age of 16 a person can choose [sic] to take a course about law, where they learn about contract law and the specific nature and effect of different types of contract - hence arguably giving them an advantage over any adult who didn’t choose to study this subject. Yet before they reach 18 they aren’t trusted to have the requisite understanding to sign a contract themselves.

I’m afraid we can’t have it both ways. Either we believe that they aren’t capable of understanding the information even if they have it, and therefore can’t give informed consent to a contract - in which case the grade that they get in this law course is worthless because it couldn’t possibly signify that they understood the information they were taught. Or we believe that they are capable of understanding this information, meaning that the law course does actually teach them something of value - but in that case we would have to concede that they are capable of signing a contract.

Admittedly someone could argue that we only expect young people to memorise information when they’re at school and not to actually understand it. But I think this is an extremely disingenuous view. I know from experience that many subjects in the school curriculum have their assessment methods revised to make it harder to just get by on rote memorisation alone. This view also still depends on the existence of some kind of ‘magic switch’ in a person’s brain that makes them suddenly capable of not just memorising but also understanding information at a particular age. There’s no scientific evidence for such a phenomenon.

In other words, because we expect children and young people to understand huge amounts of information in the education system, we contradict ourselves if we simultaneously claim that they are “not capable of understanding information” if it is presented to them. And if informed consent depends on this capability, then we have to admit that young people can give informed consent.

Of course I don’t deny that newborn babies and toddlers really don’t have this kind of capability, and that the capacities of younger children are developing, and therefore limited. That’s why I have already argued for the use of supported decision-making to help younger children to make decisions they can’t yet make autonomously. What I’ve argued in this section is that older children and young people - the majority of people in full-time compulsory education - in most cases don’t even need supported decision-making. They already meet the criteria for being capable of making informed decisions, including in the realm of education.

When I grow up…

I school striked for the climate. Some people say that I should be in school instead. Some people say that I should study to become a climate scientist so that I can ”solve the climate crisis”. But the climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions. And why should I be studying for a future that soon may be no more, when no one is doing anything to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts when the most important facts clearly mean nothing to our society?

– Greta Thunberg, climate activist, in a speech to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

“What do you want to be when you’re older?” - a question commonly asked of young people. But it’s unclear what we think we’re achieving by asking it if we simultaneously hold the belief that “young people are incapable of making informed decisions about their future”, the belief we use to justify compulsory education. Suppose a 15 year old replies that they want to become a doctor, and therefore they want to study hard to get into university or medical school to study medicine. If we believe them, then the implication is that they don’t need to be forced into studying, since if they sincerely have this goal, then they already have the motivation to study.

But if it is true that “young people lack mental capacity” then what does the young person’s reply mean? We must believe that it is some kind of robotic reflex, or that they were trained to say it using operant conditioning, or that it’s simply a random collection of utterances belying no meaning at all. But if we held such beliefs even before they opened their mouth, then why did we bother asking the question in the first place? In fact, regardless of how the young person responds, if we ask the question with any amount of sincerity then we credit them with the intelligence to make this judgement about their future - and if that is the case, then what “compelling justification” do we have for forcing them into institutions against their will?

If it is true that young people are incapable of making informed decisions about their education, then what does that say about elective subjects? Never mind the misfit ‘free schools’ - in the vast majority of conventional schools, young people are routinely asked to decide on which optional subjects they want to take. If my school experience in the UK is anything to go by, I know that this choice really was a choice of the students themselves. Teachers were on hand to give advice, and there was even an entire room full of career advice resources that was available to peruse - but nobody was forced to do so. The decision was ultimately yours.

And what should we make of Malala Yousafzai, who stood up to the Taliban at the age of 11, demanding that girls should continue to have the right to education? If it were true that young people don’t have the mental capacity to understand the importance of education, to the point that they must be forced, then surely we ought to believe that Yousafzai had no idea what she was talking about, or that she was merely a puppet of some controlling force?

But that is hardly a compelling view, since even as a socially certified bona fide adult, Yousafzai has continued to advocate for the same principles that motivated her as a child. Not only that, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 for the “struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education”. She was considered 17 years old when she received the prize, becoming the youngest person to ever receive it. These facts ought to be incomprehensible to someone who wants to justify compulsory education by young people’s alleged age-determined ‘incapacity’ to understand the issue at hand.

A Mind Developing, a Mind Decaying

It is said that our control of young people is justified because “young people’s brains are still developing” - then what should we make of the fact that older people’s brains are continually decaying, a phenomenon called age-related cognitive decline? Although older people are often discriminated against for this reason, in general they enjoy much greater power than young people. Joe Biden can become president of the United States of America while simultaneously being assigned the age of 78, despite the evidence from brain science that he must have already suffered a great deal of cognitive decline, yet nobody suggests that on the basis of his age it might be justifiable to force him into an institution against his will and have to ask someone’s permission whenever he wants to use the toilet.

Some might argue that even if an older person has a decaying mind, they still have a great deal more life experiences than a young person. But if it were life experience, and not age per se, that gave us a justification to control someone’s life, then we would be able to justify a continuous hierarchy between more and less experienced people throughout life. Although many of the world’s cultures do indeed have an age hierarchy even among adults, it never reaches the point where, for example, a 40 year-old person could forcibly institutionalise a 30 year-old person because they believed it was in their best interest and after all, they have the greater amount of life experience. Moreover, these kinds of continuous age hierarchies are never usually enshrined in law in the way that the oppression of young people is.

Conclusion

Society treats children and young people in ways that would not be considered acceptable, would even be considered human rights violations, if we treated adults in a similar way. At the very least, this should provoke scepticism of the compulsory education system. If an alternative were possible that gave young people as much autonomy as they are able to exercise, then we would lack the compelling justification we need if we want to uphold the status quo. I have argued that such an alternative is possible, and that the current system exists not because of any natural laws, moral truisms or biological facts about young people, but because young people are an oppressed group in our society, similar to women in patriarchy and to people with disabilities, treated the way they are purely on the basis of the age label we assign to them, and not on the basis of their actual capacities, their individuality, their personhood.

Education vouchers are already used in some countries and territories. As we have seen, supported decision-making is already the de facto way in which parents and children interact in many instances, and the evidence from certain kinds of alternative education suggest that children can be trusted with decisions about their education, and - crucially - that multiple governments in the world are prepared to accept the consequences of them having this control. Moreover, in the CRPD and the CRC we already have the basis of a mainstream legal framework that underpins the whole approach. That is why I insist that the alternative proposed here does not require any hocus pocus, it isn’t based on utopian thinking or crackpot theories - rather, it’s based on existing realities and existing experiences.

It will take society a long time to work through the layers of prejudice and oppressive structures that prop up the current paradigm for children and young people. Once we get past this mode of thinking that assigns more value to a number than to a lived reality, I think we will find that an alternative system that gives agency to young people is not only practical and sensible, but also a huge benefit to the ability of our society to foster responsibility, self-determination, respect for people’s differences, and yes, even a love of learning.


  1. https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities.html  ↩

  2. https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx  ↩

  3. https://supporteddecisions.org/about-supported-decision-making/  ↩

  4. Rebekah Diller, Legal Capacity for All: Including Older Persons in the Shift from Adult Guardianship to Supported Decision-Making, 43 Fordham Urb. L.J. 495 (2016). https://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/ulj/vol43/iss3/2/  ↩

  5. http://www.nidus.ca/PDFs/Nidus_FactSheet_RA_Section7.pdf  ↩

  6. http://www.child-encyclopedia.com/gender-early-socialization/according-experts/parents-socialization-gender-children  ↩

  7. https://www.naturalchild.org/  ↩

  8. Unfortunately most examples of unschooling are anecdotal, such as André Stern who has spoken and written at length about how he “never went to school” and received an education from his parents along unschooling-type lines, yet still became quite well adjusted, is literate, does not live in poverty, and speaks five languages.  ↩

  9. https://www.schoolsoftrust.de/ [German]  ↩

  10. http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/08/03/unschooling.sudbury.education/index.html  ↩

  11. https://ascentofhumanity.com/text/chapter–7/  ↩

  12. https://www.ilo.org/ipec/facts/lang–en/index.htm  ↩

  13. https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/forced-labour/definition/lang–en/index.htm  ↩

  14. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_corporal_punishment  ↩

  15. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2019/09/26/students-high-achieving-schools-are-now-named-an-at-risk-group/  ↩

  16. https://www.nap.edu/catalog/25466/vibrant-and-healthy-kids-aligning-science-practice-and-policy-to  ↩

  17. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/adolescent-mental-health  ↩

  18. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/better-mental-health-jsna-toolkit/5-children-and-young-people  ↩

  19. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2015/07–08/who-self-injures  ↩

  20. https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/bullying/conditioninfo/health  ↩

  21. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110510151216.htm  ↩

  22. https://www.england.nhs.uk/publication/guidance-on-direct-payments-for-healthcare-understanding-the-regulations/  ↩

  23. https://jech.bmj.com/content/57/2/147  ↩

  24. https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/  ↩

  25. Own translation. https://www.stifterverband.org/video/huether_schule_und_gesellschaft_radikalkritik [German]  ↩

  26. In Spain for example: https://www.statista.com/statistics/455191/unemployment-rate-in-spain-by-age-group/  ↩

  27. http://www.eli-net.eu/fileadmin/ELINET/Redaktion/Factsheet-Literacy_in_Europe-A4.pdf  ↩

  28. https://www.urbanlearning.co.uk/blog/9-million-adults-in-the-uk-are-functionally-illiterate  ↩

  29. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_period  ↩

  30. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_development_of_Genie  ↩

  31. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QOznObRok_4&list=PLJhQ-FXyhRTZifmwyVa6prXGNIBsqqB4g&index=6  ↩

  32. https://feminisminindia.com/2017/07/18/history-hysteria-science-sexist/  ↩

  33. Own translation. https://www.naiv-kollektiv.org/2019/04/04/werd-endlich-mal-erwachsen/ [German]  ↩

  34. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malala_Yousafzai  ↩

  35. https://www.nationalchildrensalliance.org/media-room/national-statistics-on-child-abuse/  ↩

  36. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20024932/  ↩