Coercive education

It is curious that the term 'coercive' education or learning should be used in a pejorative sense, as many home educating parents in this country seem to do. I can offhand think of no better way to introduce children to a wide variety of new ideas and experiences.

Before we go any further, a personal anecdote. A few years ago the local authority had money to spare for activities for young people during the summer holidays. These ranged from archery and kayaking to assertiveness training and musical workshops. My daughter signed up for everything she could. Unfortunately, so few children wanted to do some of these things that they had to be cancelled. this, despite the fact that they were all completely free and local kids are always moaning that there is nothing to do round here. I took the trouble to ask a few young people why they had not signed up for these activities and the answers were very revealing. 'I'm no good at sports', 'I can't act', 'I've never done anything like that before', 'I'm not musical' were all typical responses, in addition to the predictable, 'I wouldn't know anybody there'. In other words, some of these kids rejected new experiences because they were new and others didn't like the idea because they felt it might be something which they wouldn't be any good at. Had this programme been laid on during the term as part of a school project and the kids given no choice about participating, many of them would have thoroughly enjoyed themselves and perhaps found new interests and hobbies. This often happens when children are not given the option about whether or not they join in something.

An awful lot of people first acquire a taste for Shakespeare, Dickens or other great literature at school. They are not consulted about this, they simply have to study these writers and learn about their works. As a result, many a child has come to love literature and the theatre. A lot of these children would have declined to read Charles Dickens if they were offered a choice, or refused to watch a play by Shakespeare. Because they were not given the choice, they have become familiar with the works and come to appreciate them. In the same way, many children have found a love of art or music, history or mathematics, by being exposed to them as part of an education over which they were able to exercise no control at all. This also happens in some home educating families of the more structured type; it is not limited to schools.

The younger that this exposure to a wide range of academic and other activities occurs, the better. Many young children, even by the time they enter formal education, have a visceral distaste for certain things. For example many dislike anything which smacks of high culture; opera, classical music, theatre and so on. Many of these children would never voluntarily take part in anything like this, although many enjoy these activities when they actually do encounter Shakespeare and Beethoven. Others don't like books and reading or feel that they will find history boring, mathematics difficult and so on. A number of these children will, because they have been given no choice in the matter, find that they enjoy reading and history and go on to become enthusiastic about them.

These childish prejudices can become entrenched if not tackled young and it is as well that they are dealt with at a very early age. Otherwise the result can be an adult who says, 'I've never liked books' or 'I've always been hopeless at art'. It is only by being exposed to all these things and taking part in them when young that they are likely to overcome these feelings. Allowing a child who says that she does not like sums to avoid mathematics, or a child who claims to dislike books to avoid reading, will allow these childish feelings to become lifelong and irrational prejudices: something which I have no doubt happens frequently with children who have been educated autonomously and allowed to avoid academic subjects and experiences which they claim to dislike.