Whatever Happened to Alternative Education? By Freya Aquarone

[This article was originally published by Radix whose vision is a sustainable society where all citizens can live securely with dignity, are active participants in society and are free to pursue their own interpretation of the good life.]

Over the past half century, despite many changes of government, and many impassioned pleas for alternative visions, the English education system has remained remarkably resilient to change.

Sure, ministers will tinker – it’s always been the fastest route to politically marketable ‘success’. A new curriculum focus here, a new system of ‘quality’ oversight there. A new route to QTS, a fund for poorer students. A teachers’ pay rise (or a carefully disguised cut). 

Some of these changes are good, some of them ridiculous. But what they have in common is the tinkering. Tony Blair, for instance, is often lauded as a transformative policymaker, not least in the field of education (“education, education, education” he professed, and went about his day, busily introducing tuition fees). Blair did lots of moving money around (and some of it really did need moving).

He vastly increased overall spending on education. He invented new funds. He changed the way money could be accessed. He introduced charges for some things (like university) and financial incentives for others (academisation and embracing private sector involvement). He threatened schools with closure or academy conversion for failing to ‘perform’. 

But in-keeping with his claim that what mattered was ‘standards not structures’, he didn’t really change anything fundamental. He certainly didn’t consider radical ‘alternatives’. Rather, his policies were largely a continuation of previous Conservative governments’ neoliberalising of the sector through the proliferation of competition, consumer ‘choice’, ‘excellence’ measured by standardised data, and the embedding of the belief that hard work, ‘leadership’ and self-improvement are the ultimate keys to educational success (rather than, say, addressing fundamental structural and philosophical flaws). Subsequent governments have continued the trend. 

The trouble is, within this framework, it is very difficult for education to do much in the way of ‘making change’, not least to contribute to the kinds of radical transformation necessary to tackle humanity’s most entrenched injustices. Within a system concerned with narrowly measured outputs and which considers students consumers-/economic agents-in-the-making, education is to a frustrating extent limited to going up and down restrictive scales of value set out by the powers-that-be.

For there is an irony at the heart of all this: despite much of last few decades of education policy being framed by a rhetoric of ‘freedom’ and ‘autonomy’, the sector has been subject to a steady tightening of central government control and the enforced reduction of educational values to corporate notions of efficiency and individualised competitiveness.

Despite this, there are many wonderful examples of alternative and radical education practice in recent years. They build on legacies of the past: the grassroots – especially those which grow outside of mainstream structures – have almost always been a core source of hope and transformation.

To give just one example, in the 1970s it was the Black Supplementary Schools movement – led by activists, scholars and community organisers – and not the state, which stepped up to fill the curriculum void built up by years of colonial legacy and entrenched racism. The more recent flurry of attempts to decolonise the enduringcolonialism of our curricula has been in response to the 2020 resurgence of Black Lives Matter, the hard work of many activists and (literal) sacrifice of Black lives; again, not initiated by the state, unless we thank its instruments of policing as a warped kind of catalyst.

People have always found ways of building their educational utopias outside of mainstream spaces. And they have fought, as the Black Supplementary Schools volunteers did for dignity and self-knowledge in the face of racism and censorship, as Mrs Baker did for the right to educate her children at home, as Summerhill (founded as a children’s democracy) did against closure, as the Burston Strike School did for workers’ and children’s rights.

These grassroots movements are of vital importance. They give possibility to visions. They stand as beacons of better possibilities – of what can be, not just as words on a page, but in a concrete reality. 

But they are competing with a mainstream system which generally sings from an utterly different hymn sheet. Which wants to democratise, to introduce ‘student voice’ and ‘partnership’, because they sound trendy and enticing, but to do so without disrupting the steady drumbeat of grade improvement (whilst turning a blind eye to the incompatible desire of the establishment to avoid ‘grade inflation’), a firm belief in ‘social mobility’ (whilst turning a blind eye to the fact that, by its current iteration, this simply means changing who is at the bottom of the ladder, rather than addressing the inhumanity of the ladder itself) and the idea that knowledge-acquisition can be separated from relationships, that self-actualisation can be separated from feeling recognised and represented, and that all of these things – if we can finally convince ourselves they matter – can be dictated from on high, measured and evaluated within a single comparable framework, and penalised into working better when needed.

So long as these alternative education concepts can be stripped of their radical underpinnings – like the decentralisation of power and control, large-scale resource redistribution, collective action, and solidarity, like anti-racism, disruption and challenges to authority – they are safe, and they look good on the website.

So long as we allow this co-option to happen, the education system will structurally continue to look basically the same. Because truly implementing these ideas actually requires a much more fundamental overhaul. 

I was tasked with doing a blog post about a book I recently co-wrote and inspired by the question ‘whatever happened to alternative education?’ My answer is: nothing. It’s still there. Quietly and crucially. Still doing vital work for thousands of people.

But its impact is capped by the limits of our current paradigm. By the fact that the mainstream carries on, grazed but to a large extent unruffled, hurtling towards a very different set of priorities and goals, and co-opting whatever ‘alternatives’ it can in the process, adapting and fitting them to neoliberal priorities. 

So what to do? If the educational alternatives on the edges are serving a vital purpose but are ultimately not enough – a necessary but not sufficient condition for change – what else is required? I believe it’s those of us on the inside pushing back. Linking hands with the radical fringe to fight for a common cause.

I have long been convinced that true social change requires an all-out collaborative effort by people both within and outside the status quo spaces. By people finding their calling in whatever capacity and directing their energies towards it, rather than by being divided into insiders and outsiders, sell-outs and radicals.

As Rebecca Solnit writes in Hope In The Dark, change is “often considered to be spontaneous, but less visible long-term organizing and groundwork – or underground work – laid the foundation”. This ‘underground’ work requires a collaboration of many forces: ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the establishment, on the margins as well as in plain view, both on the stage and in the shadows.

Many practitioners on the inside of mainstream education spaces know damn well the system is broken, manage to do extraordinary things in spite of this, and are desperate to see things transformed. Their work is critical.

The history of activism in UK education contexts shows us this. Student campus campaigns in the 70s to fight for better living costs grants, against University links to apartheid South Africa, or to challenge institutional surveillance. Contemporary campaigns to decolonise education and abolish exclusions. Hackney School Kids Against the Nazis- refusing to accept the National Front’s attempts to influence their local school culture.

The anti-racist Occupation of Goldsmiths just last year. Children walking out of school to refuse corporal punishment in 1972 and walking out again for the climate in 2019 – explicitly questioning an education system which teaches them to focus more on exam grades than on how to avert environmental crisis.

In a much less dramatic way, the programme I am part of as a staff member at King’s College London has been attempting its own kind of internal subversiveness – to undercut many of the norms around ‘what matters’ in education which are highlighted above.

Earlier this year, in an attempt to capture all this internal resistance – its successes and its many challenges – I co-wrote a book with a team of undergraduates from the programme called We’re Trying to do Things Differently.

As research partners we interviewed members of our community about their experiences so far and analysed the data together. We reflect on trying to reinsert ‘the human’ into educational practice. Trying to value relationships. Trying to centre democracy and partnership in a system not exactly set up for doing these things properly. Trying to confront the structural harm done to marginalised people within a system built on a violent past.

And trying to confront our own shortcomings in attempting to realise all this – not least because of the contextual constraints we have to grapple with precisely because we are doing it in a mainstream setting. 

But in researching and writing the book, we encountered a big problem with calling on practitioners ‘on the inside’ to initiate change: they are exhausted.

Indeed, this is a particularly endemic problem in schools. And a core reason so many teachers are leaving the profession in droves. Why studies continually highlight burn-out and mental health crisis. It’s not just about the salary, or the philosophical dissonance; it’s the exhaustion.

I have a (relatively small) level of insight into this as a teacher in higher education. Every sector of education has its own unique challenges and, in many ways, higher education has managed to avoid the worst excesses of state micromanagement – at least as far as pedagogy and assessment are concerned; on these counts, universities are remarkably self-governing (even if their own governance structures often leave much to be desired).

But the sector is underfunded, under-staffed, over-populated, reliant on ludicrously high levels of casualised, precarious labour, and largely measured by the same neoliberal success markers as the rest of the education system. Albeit in our case in the guise of things like graduate salaries and consumer satisfaction surveys.

As one of many people teaching in the sector without being an academic, I at least escape the other main branch of HE managerialism, which covers the research side, with its excellence frameworks and assessment exercises that demand academics churn out work to particular ‘standards’, in particular ways, to achieve citation averages and star ratings (a bit like Amazon products) which determine their ‘worth’.

But even so, and this year more than ever – a year defined by the pandemic and accordingly increased bureaucratic and pastoral workloads – I often feel unsustainably tired.

And yet. Time and time again, I rediscover that togetherness is – has always been – an incredible source of vitality. Every time I meet and talk with other tired practitioners, there is a kind of electricity, a kind of clarity, that begins to build when we start to collectively contemplate change.

And the trick is in the ‘collectively’ bit. Not alone, trudging on against the odds. But together. Some people may be jaded beyond this point – so tired that they cannot focus on anything other than survival. But in my (albeit limited) experience, most are not. Most people are hungry. Most people are clinging to some kind of vision of change. They are tired, but what they are most tired of is doing it all on their own.

Part of the reason the team and I decided to write the book was because we wanted to shout a bit louder in the rumbling conversation about refusing collectively to carry on ‘as is’. And while the pandemic has exposed so much of the rotted foundations of our society, there is surely no time like now for refusing to perpetuate the status quo.

What we write about isn’t earth-shattering, but it is a challenge to the taken-for-granted norms in higher education and across educational sectors which I outlined earlier. A call to arms to reject from within some of the assumptions about what is ‘normal’ and what is ‘necessary’ which have actually prevented, for many years, any form of meaningful educational change. Have restricted it to tinkering. 

We’re Trying to do Things Differently is an attempt to reach out to others, doing or trying to do similar ‘alternative’ work ‘on the inside’ – to build understanding, share knowledge and experience, and strengthen our collective endeavour to do a different kind of education in often unforgivingly resistant institutional contexts.

Because we have always been strongest when we shout together. Have always had energy when we’ve shared the load. As we write in the book’s epilogue:

“Accepting the enduring power of structures is not about resigning ourselves to determinism; just because we cannot completely transform the broader picture does not deny the significance of resistance. We might be shaped by structures, but we are also always shaping them. And when enough people do things differently, persistently, structures can change.”

‘We’re trying to do things differently: The challenges of relationships and recognition in Higher Education’ was published by the Centre for Public Policy Research in December 2020.

Physical copies are available via this online order form. Alternatively, the e-book version is available to download from the King’s College London website. Both versions are available completely free of charge thanks to generous funding from the London Interdisciplinary Social Science Doctoral Training Partnership.

Freya Aquarone has worked in a number of educational contexts, including mainstream schools, alternative provision, and democratic schools, believing in the importance of children and young people having a say over the communities they are part of, and in the significance of participatory democracy for creating more critically reflective and empowering educational spaces. Freya joined King’s College London in October 2018 on an ESRC funded MA+PhD studentship to research democratic education practice and its significance for social justice.

Alongside this work, Freya teaches on the BA Social Science programme at King’s College London. They are also chair of the board of trustees for the New School, a fee-free independent democratic school based in Croydon.