If many national governments have done anything throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s show us the myriad of ways that they will will never enable safety for anyone so long as they remain in control of our lives. From the absolutely abhorrent ways in which schools have been turned into battlegrounds for the right-wing to target students with harassment and abuse to the absolute refusal to ensure the safety and basic necessities of all people, many governments have shown that they are only there to ensure that institutions uphold a status quo that fails almost everyone.
Many governments have repeatedly proven that they have no right to dictate the education of all people and that they’d rather indoctrinate us to further their goals and uphold their beliefs. They have provided ample evidence of the ways in which they would harm anyone who either doesn’t fit into their version of a ‘perfect society’ or who they feel threatened by.
They have only shown that they do not care and that they will do whatever they can to maintain their power, even if it involves implementing the most superficial of changes to pretend that they are “more inclusive” and “accessible” spaces. They have enabled and allowed multiple structures that have made it possible to literally abuse, torture, and murder children, especially if they are non-white, disabled, and/or gender non-conforming.
Universal compulsory schooling is a relatively new phenomenon, but many people see it as being a “necessary” structure to “properly” educate children. This is despite the fact that most people never attended compulsory schooling prior to the 18th century, and those who had were more likely to be used to either further the goals of empire-building or to perpetuate unequal systems in favour of their families. Public schooling that was designed to “educate” all students through “equal” measures was not something that most people participated in, and its overall structure still created divisions between people based on race, class, gender, and ethnicity for those who did.
The original goal of public schooling was never about how it benefited the students and their families. This phenomenon is even younger than that of public schooling. For many in Europe, the push towards public schooling was more about developing literacy among people so that they could read ‘the Holy book’. This can be seen in Norway, as the Danish King of Danish-Norway implemented legislation in 1739 for rural schools that had been instigated by a pietist movement in order to achieve this goal (urban schools were left out because it was seen as superfluous, since the assumption was that people in urban locations would create schools to learn to read without needing laws to make them do it).
In the United States, a primary push for public education was ensuring the security of the republic by promoting a republican education. Thomas Jefferson, though many of his ideas about education were not implemented until after his death, wrote prolifically on education and its role in safe-guarding the unstable republic. Much in the way that many claim modern day schooling is ‘about proper citizenship’ and focus on how it creates ‘educated members to participate in our government’, Jefferson promoted his ideas of public schooling under a similar banner. He wanted all white men to be able to understand as much as they ‘needed’ to understand to participate in ‘effective governance’, which was largely based on their position in life.
But in neither case was public schooling really universal, since it focused largely on the people either deemed “most important and necessary” or those who were seen as “fit to participate” (to a certain point). The entire structure of public schooling was designed to exclude most people to varying degrees.
Fast forward to today, and this is still the case. Though some things have changed (public schools are supposedly ‘secular’) and compulsory schooling has been extended to cover more people, schools still remain massively harmful policies for the majority of people. In many US schools in predominantly non-white communities, police create unsafe environments for students of colour as they harass them in the hallways, assuming the worst of literal children. In fact, the police who are allowed on these campuses are allowed to kill with impunity, covering up the murder of a child (like Anthony Thompson Jr) by lying about him.
On the other side of the planet, schools across Europe maintain the segregation of both Roma and disabled students by hiding them away in “accessible” or “appropriate” schools. This perpetuates the violence that many people in both demographics face, keeping them out of sight and out of mind.
Meanwhile, governments across the planet implement legislation that continually harms gender non-conforming students. Some, like the state legislature in Florida, go so far as to promote the abusive practice of genital inspections for trans* sports players (particularly trans girls) under the guise of “protecting children” while terrorising and abusing others (only to walk them back to still implement trans-exclusive bills with less physically invasive restrictions). Even in schools where policies allow some degree of comfort and supposed security for trans* children, they are still far more likely to center the feelings of their cisgender peers should anything happen that involves a trans* student. School staff can even support the children in their schools, only for a judge to take issue with it and out them on social media.
Over in the French-speaking world, they have been focused on harming religious minorities within their borders and in their schools. Back in December 2020, authorities closed the only Muslim high school in Paris, claiming that they “didn’t meet safety standards” while still allowing a number of Catholic schools to remain open. Some time after that, France’s national government decided to ban minors from wearing a hijab despite the fact that they already had banned “conspicuous” religious symbols from being worn in schools in 2004. Quebec has also joined in with their own Bill 21 which creates a similar ban in Montreal, though English schools have supposedly been “exempted” from it (which the government wants to appeal). While these laws have been implemented to largely target Muslim, they are only going to continue to harm other religious minorities.
And then the Greeks have their own problems. During one of the strictest COVID-19 lockdowns in Europe, the conservative government decided to implement “education-focused” reforms to their universities. Education Minister Niki Kerameus put forward a reform bill that was co-sponsored by the Ministry of Public Order and aims to end the “atmosphere of fear, intimidation, and lawlessness in universities” that she and other conservatives believe exists. This reform bill, while changing access to universities and putting time limits on students to earn their degrees, would allow for campus police to exist on university campuses. Supporting a bill that is likely to harm Greek students, Prime Minister Kyriakos Misotakis claimed that they were really “installing democracy” in colleges. Unsurprisingly, overwhelming numbers of students and tutors alike don’t seem to agree with the government, citing that it will only make things more dangerous and inhibit the learning process.
The policies our governments are implementing are only making schools less safe for children, if they were ever safe to begin with.
Even though it doesn’t directly deal with schools, I feel compelled to add that migration is a major education-related issue that often falls to the wayside. So many people, particularly children, are being harmed by harsh and nonsensical immigration policies that have no purpose existing in the first place.
The ways in which Europe has treated a number of refugees — many of whom are children — and hindered their access to a caring society is beyond grotesque. Greece has made the decision to close a refugee camp, making it more difficult for the children living there to access nearby public schools and upsetting their daily lives. Denmark is revoking the visas of Syrian refugees because they claim it is “safe enough” to go back, applying this to children whose advocates have been pointing out the ways that they “assimilated” into Danish society by being model students (which shouldn’t matter because everyone deserves safety). Italy is doing its best to criminalise migration while harassing low-level boat drivers who are also migrants, wrongfully detaining people in Libyan camps and denying them access to basic and necessary services. Thousands of the people that they have detained in those camps are children who cannot access basic services, let alone schools, and are incredibly vulnerable to exploitation because many of them are alone.
But Europe’s not alone in mistreating refugees and neglecting the needs of actual human beings. In the United States, despite the fact that Joe Biden claimed he would make significant breaks from the policies of the Trump administration, he’s decided to keep many of the most harmful alive. In fact, he opened his first 100 days by increasing the deportations of Haitians, harming the stability of a number of people and families. He promised to release the children from the camps at the southern border and reunite them with their families, but they’ve only been upgraded to more stable prison boxes while Biden’s spokespeople claim they “inherited the problem from Trump” (who utilised policies developed under Obama). These children have been, for far too long, separated from their families and segregated from society. The US government does not care, and it doesn’t matter which party runs it.
Beyond just schools, states are unsafe for everyone, and the institutions that they create impose unnecessary harm, especially on children and young people.
For any state, at any point in time, to claim that they care about children, it is nothing short of a lie. They care about themselves. Everything they do, including schooling, is to perpetuate their power; it is not to help ordinary people, even when they claim it will.
Governments will only implement the most superficial of policy changes to make schools appear safe; they will make them appear more inclusive for some while others still have to fight in order to be recognised. Policies will never protect those who most need it; they will support those who perpetuate harm.
We will constantly be told that schools are necessary institutions for the ‘health of the nation’, but they are only there to ensure that the status quo remains. People can learn in any setting, and children deserve to be part of their communities. If anything, governments will only allow us to achieve incremental changes in our schools to placate us, if they allow any at all.
We need to abolish them in order to make sure that everyone, especially children, are safe.