Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

The Human Rights Struggle in Europe: Educational Choice

European families are being fined, and worse, for pursuing educational freedom.

Two and a half weeks ago I was honored to attend and speak at the 2013 conference of EUDEC (European Democratic Education Community).  I met many brave individuals and families who are making personal sacrifices in their struggle to bring educational choice to Europe. 

We in the United States are comparatively lucky.  We come from a tradition of pioneers and adventurers, of people who rebelled against religious and state restrictions in the countries from which they originated; and we retain at least some respect for people who choose routes less traveled.  In most of Europe, in contrast, there is a greater sense that the minority must submit to the majority.  If the majority feel that children should be educated in a certain way, then that way must be right for everyone; so that way becomes enshrined in law, and people who follow their own conscience and beliefs are outlaws.

In Belgium, for example, which many regard as educationally the freest of the continental European countries, Muslim parents have been faced with a decree severely limiting their ability to homeschool their children. In any given year they must declare their intention to homeschool during the first three days of September and agree that their children will take the government exams at specified times.  If the intent is not filed on the specified days, or if the exams aren’t passed, the students have to return to a state school. [Note added 8/21/2013--To clarify, these restrictions on homeschooling apply to all homeschoolers in Belgium; they just made the news because of their effects on Muslims homeschooling for religious reasons.]

Other countries are as bad or worse.  For example, a few months ago a Christian family from Germany applied to the United States for asylum, on the grounds of religious freedom, because the German government had arrested and convicted them, fined them heavily, and threatened to take their children away, because they were educating their children at home in ways consistent with their beliefs rather than ways consistent with state mandates.

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Families who hold to the philosophy of self-directed education—the philosophy that I have long been writing about on this blog—face particular problems in Europe.  The basic premise of this philosophy is that children learn and develop best when they are in charge of their own education; that is, when they are allowed to learn what they wish, when they wish, and how they wish. According to this philosophy, the obligation of adults is to provide educational opportunity for children, not educational coercion.

Some who follow this philosophy choose home-based self-directed learning, often called unschooling, where parents play a major role in providing educational opportunities for their children and connecting them with community resources that enable them to pursue their chosen educational paths.  Others have formed democratic schools, many of which are modeled after the Sudbury Valley School.  These are settings for self-directed education where children can play and learn in an age-mixed environment, where there are many knowledgeable people from whom to learn and the tools of learning are available to everyone. 

State-mandated exams subvert self-directed education, because they dictate the content and timing of learning and undermine children’s sense that educational assessment is their own responsibility and pertains to their own personal, unique goals and values.

At the EUDEC conference I met many people who have founded or are in the process of founding democratic schools modeled after Sudbury Valley.  I discovered that there are basically three approaches one can take in trying to found or operate such a school in Europe:  

1) You can do it quietly, subverting the law, and hope that government authorities don’t come around and inspect what you are doing.  This approach seems to work best in big cities, where there are many schools and inspectors would just as soon ignore you in order to reduce their workload.  If you take this approach, however, you know that inspection might occur at any time, which could lead to the school’s closing.  

2) You can compromise with the law by giving the state tests at the mandated times and showing that the students pass them, but then you are subverting, or at least partly subverting, the philosophy of self-directed education.  

3) You can challenge the law and ultimately try to change it or its interpretation, by openly publicizing the school’s philosophy and methods, not compromising, and fighting the government in court.

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The third approach, fighting in court, is the approach that my friends Peter and Christel Hartkamp and their brave colleagues in the Netherlands are currently taking.  Six years ago, along with several other families, the Hartkamps founded the De Kampanje school, in Amersfoort.  The school attracted quite a number of students and was succeeding beautifully until the state inspections began.  The inspectors saw that the children were happy and were learning, but they also saw that they were not studying the state curriculum or being tested on it, nor were they following any other imposed curriculum, so they declared that De Kampanje is not, in the eyes of the state, a school. 

Soon after that the arrests began, and many parents--facing heavy fines, threats of imprisonment, and the ultimate threat of having their children removed from them--withdrew their children and sent them to state-sanctioned schools.  The Hartkamps and some of the other families, however, persisted.  They refused to be intimidated.  They are taking every legal means to fight the convictions. They have been fighting the government in two types of courts that exist in the Netherlands—criminal and administrative. 

In criminal court, these brave families, who have been convicted of violating the compulsory education law, are now appealing those convictions to the next highest level in the court system.  The date set for that hearing is November 7 of this year.  I wish them well.

In administrative court, which deals with cases involving the way the government administers its laws and regulations, the Hartkamps and others have been contesting the school inspectors’ decision that De Kampanje and another Sudbury model school in the Netherlands, De Koers, are not legitimate schools.  This fight continued for at least two years and has already gone to the highest administrative court in the Netherlands.  The government won.  So now the Hartkamps and their colleagues are appealing the case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

Nothing is going to happen quickly through the ECHR.  It may take a year before the court decides whether or not to hear the case, and then, if they decide to hear it, it may take another four years before the hearing occurs.  Meanwhile, the appeal has no bearing on the ability of the Dutch government to arrest, fine, imprison, and in other ways harass the parents who are firmly holding to their convictions.

I was asked by the Hartkamps and their colleagues to prepare a statement, for the ECHR, concerning the philosophy of Sudbury education and the evidence that the philosophy works, which I was glad to do.  As part of my preparation, I read a 63-page statement, entitled “Motives of Parents and Students for Their Choice for Sudbury Schools in the Netherlands,” which these families had written as part of their petition.

In the Motives statement, the parents and children of eighteen different families (if I counted correctly) describe, in their own words, why they chose the De Kampanje or De Koers school.  All of the stories moved me emotionally.  The parents described how little their children were learning and how much they were suffering in the standard school, and how all that was turned around when they went to De Kampanje or De Koers.  The children described how happy they are at the democratic school and unhappy and repressed they were in the conventional school.  Some of the children had been regularly bullied and traumatized in the conventional school.  Some had suffered from severe physical symptoms of stress—headaches, abdominal aches, vomiting every day before school.  At least one 8-year-old declared she would rather be dead than return to the conventional school.  One boy, whose growth had been stunted, grew 30 centimeters in one year after entering the democratic school.

These parents are not fighting to shut off the option of conventional schools for those who want them.  They are fighting for their own and everyone’s right to choose.  And, most of all, they are fighting to preserve and promote the healthy physical, social, emotional, and intellectual development of their own children.  The state is treating them as if they are neglectful and abusive parents for not sending their children to the state school, but, in fact, they are fighting this battle precisely because they are among the most loving, caring, and responsible parents that can be found anywhere.

This is a human rights struggle on a par with other human rights struggles throughout the ages.  We have seen the struggles for religious freedom and for equality before the law regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, which are still continuing in many places.  Now, in Europe, we are witnessing the struggle for freedom in education.  Let’s keep a close eye on this and support these brave families in whatever ways we can.  Let’s see if European countries can live up to their claims to be democracies that respect human rights.

Note added Sept 27, 2013:  The families carring on these court fights have depleated their personal bank accounts and need donations to continue this struggle.  Please consider making a donation here.

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What do you think?  Are you involved in any way, anywhere, in the human rights struggle for freedom in education?  Are you fully on the side of the families, or do you find reason to support the government’s position in these disputes? This blog is a forum for discussion, and your stories, comments, and questions are valued and treated with respect by me and other readers. As always, I prefer if you post your comments and questions here rather than send them to me by private email. By putting them here, you share with other readers, not just with me. I read all comments and try to respond to all serious questions, if I feel I have something useful to say. Of course, if you have something to say that truly applies only to you and me, then send me an email.

Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of the newly published book Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook now in its 6th edition).

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