Free speech in schools: can you tolerate ideas that are different to your own?

How free should we be to have free schools?

There were turbans and floral print dresses, dog-collars and dreadlocks. I was at an OFSTED presentation for private schools.  OFSTED is the government body that inspects schools in England and Wales.

These school principals were all representatives of the variety of alternatives on the fringes of British society. Posh private schools have their own inspectorate.  The small ones are stuck with OFSTED, the government body that inspects schools to keep an eye on standards.

I don’t think there was a person in the room who thought they would gain much from the encounter. There were perhaps three hundred and they all wanted to know how their schools survive.

Strange bedfellows they might have been but they had one thing in common: they all lived at the edges.

Living at the edges

Let’s get clear how different the visions at the meeting were.

  • Summerhill you already know: basically atheist and rational with a strong line in libertarian thought.
  • Jewish school leaders who hold onto religious and racial identity.
  • A Sikh with a hairnet over his beard, with clear ideas about his community.
  • A Muslim looking faintly abashed in the wake of the latest terrorist scare in the press.
  • Catholics with scrubbed faces stabbed their pudgy fingers at the papers in front of them.
  • The Steiner representatives were faintly ethereal.
  • The Montessori teachers looked kindly in hand-knitted woollens.
  • Quakers with salt and pepper beards sat quietly at the back.

The range of alternatives went from the extreme authoritarian to the extreme permissive.

Each one of these groups has its own educational culture. They represent traditions with roots in national and ethnic cultures. Do they have a right to exist? Do the parents have a right to educate their children how they choose to?

I defend your right to say it…

One’s natural tendency is to say, “Yes!”   Then you think of the school that promotes Creationism instead of science?  Children deserve to be told something approaching the truth, don’t they? And can you really give official sanction to Steiner’s strange philosophy of fairies and moon goddesses?  Does Summerhill School “deprive children of opportunities” in the classroom by making lessons optional?  Does the government have to do something?

Freedom of speech means that you allow people to say what they want to say even if you disagree with it profoundly, even if you think that it is wrong, unscientific, irrational, and counter-productive. You even allow people to say what they want if you think it is hateful, malicious and harmful. The law courts deal with cases of libel, treason and slander, but it is not the job of governments, their schools or their school inspectors to put limits on free speech.


Sometimes it is hard to judge what is acceptable.  For example, racist and homophobic opinions are less and less acceptable in the world.  But in open societies freedom of speech and freedom of association are vital. This means that:

governments should not pass laws restricting people’s right to hold those opinions and express them.

Freedom of speech- even when that speech is noxious- has shown through experience to lead to better scientific and academic work and more tolerant societies. Attempts to control free speech lead to what Orwell called “Newspeak”. And it is functionaries who want to impose newspeak because it bolsters their own importance and prestige. Governments and their education “experts” have a distressing tendency to want to tell us how to think and behave.


Authoritarian states restrict freedom of speech. Franco, Stalin and Mussolini were authoritarians. Modern Social Democrats are also show a distasteful meritocratic authoritarianism.  Meritocrats like to argue that the only route for expressing your opinion is through the ballot box and push for political leaders to have more and more control over individual liberties. They love examinations and standards because the apparent impartiality of testing seems to justify their own positions; but this does not take account of  moral luck. They believe, somewhat paradoxically given the amount of corruption in governments of all kinds, that parliament should get involved in the moral formation of the population by promoting certain kinds of programme in schools. This is the root of their objection to freedom in education.

Yet governments are far from neutral and technocrats are far from impartial.

Even if you choose “nice” policies, such as social inclusion, respect for minorities, gender equality and creative education, you have achieved very little if those policies are applied as a blanket across the nation, smothering the variety of human expression and culture. You have closed down society and restricted freedom.

You have created another kind of church, another kind of belief system. What is the difference between that kind of church and the traditional churches where men in frocks handed pieties down from the pulpit?

  • The Catholics are right to say, “No, we do not want that for our children.”
  • The Steiners are right to say, “No, we want to frolic with the fairies.”
  • The Islamic schools are right to say, “That is not what we want. You are oppressing us.”


OFSTED stands for the Office for Standards in Education. The use of the word “standards” makes you think that there is something matter-of-fact about the inspection process.

  • There are council inspectors who come around and check the drains are working.
  • There are inspectors of building codes and inspectors of health and hygiene.
  • So, it is logical that there should be inspectors of schools.

The problem with schools, however, is that there is more than one way of doing things. The way the bureaucrats have chosen is the least imaginative of these ways: they went from school, to university, to the office; all of these environments controlled and controlling with carefully measured progression through levels and grades and posts. Are these people really the ones that we want to set standards? Are these the people whose opinions we value? They would not have the imagination to appreciate that some people are saying, “That is your game and I do not want to play.”

Blanket Education Suffocates

Blanket education suffocates. It sucks the living juice out of teachers. It is profoundly oppressive to children. The fact that there are turbans and floral print dresses, dog-collars and dreadlocks all together in one room is at once hopeful and disturbing: a few splodges of colour on a dull cement facade; a singing voice by the motorway, the scent of a real flower at the edge of a carpark. There is something dully inevitable about bureaucracy and all the ugliness it brings into the world.

The optimism comes from seeing the variety as life, not as threat. That is why I defend my neighbours’ rights to educate their children as they please, even if it is an education that goes against the grain of my own feelings. I defend people’s attempts to stand up and say that they are different while the vast monotonous herd tells them no.

Children can grow up by themselves.

Anne Stevenson

Anne Stevenson

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post comment