Schools like prisons, prisons like schools

The Conservative government's latest announcement is not as absurd as first seems.

12 February 2016

Flickr/Melody Kramer

, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On Thursday 4 February UK Home Secretary Theresa May suggested in a speech that police and crime commissioners should be given the power to set up their own free schools. This would “bring together the two great reforms of the last parliament – police reform and school reform – to work with and possibly set up alternative provision free schools to support troubled children and prevent them from falling into a life of crime”.

How does one respond to an announcement like this? Comments on The Guardian website suggest incredulity, if not horror. What will this ugly regime think of next? Clearly Theresa May is “off her head” or simply “an idiot” to suggest it.

Others sigh, rather knowingly: “Another totally weird Tory idea” to be expected of the current administration. “Same old stupid nasty Tories”, someone else comments. One way or another, the theme is one of utter lunacy.

It is unfortunate, then, that the situation is rather the reverse. It is entirely reasonable, though not inevitable, that these agencies (prisons and schools) should mix under the (some would say incompetent) direction of a local commissioner. Many cite the borstal as a precedent. But as any reader of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish will know, schools and prisons have been exchanging techniques for at least two centuries.

The connection with policing may still seem odd. Theresa May favourably cites her conservative predecessor Sir Robert Peel who, in setting up the metropolitan police, sought to give reality to the “historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police.” But her speech also points to another historic tradition – that of public education – where the primary role of schooling is the policing of youth. And so to those who, like May, celebrate ‘policing by public consent’ (attributed to Peel), it is worth pointing out that schools have long been forming the public that does, which is to say authenticates, the policing.

In English politics, this history extends as far back as the workhouse schools, which the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act had tasked with dedicating at least three hours a day to “train them to habits of usefulness, industry and virtue”, making sure young people would be better able to find work and therefore avoid needing poor relief or turning to crime.

With this in mind, the proposals put forward by Adam Simmonds (as early as 2014) and Theresa May, can be seen less as the introduction of a new system of policing through education and more as an acknowledgement of the limits to its current success in contemporary educational institutions.

The very notion of the ‘troubled child’ is the product of a shared institutional heritage, where tests are now used to predict the likely futures of children, so that those futures may be better managed. The ‘troubled child’ is in part a statistical and institutional product, an effect of a wider carceral network that includes prisons and schools. Here criminal futures are statistical hypotheses used to inform present practices, and practitioners. Here the ‘troubled child’ is similar to the ‘gifted child’ – both must modify their behaviour in response to their anticipated future. Hence those educators who recoil in horror at May’s latest suggestion, might want to inspect how they are already, at a mundane level, implicated in the system they denounce.

There is something wilfully experimental in May’s suggestion. This, too, is in keeping with the history of education. In 1791 Jeremy Bentham introduced his perfect institution, the ‘panopticon’, a place that might equally be used to incarcerate, educate or medicate. With cells arranged around a central watchtower, yet cut off from one another, inmates could be observed, disciplined but also subjected to experiment. They could be submitted to variations of child neglect, for example, in order to test theories of learning.

Today’s free schools are similarly experimental. Apparently those schools that fail will close, those that succeed will prosper. Only there is no central watchtower, no single scientist supervising events, perfecting incarceration, or education, for a given aim. The experiment with schooling continues, though without clear rationale or purpose. Innovation is sufficient. Failure is inevitable. Odd proposals are to be expected.


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