This dissertation examined alternative education in Japan at the compulsory education level, and attempted to shed light on the roles of free schools, homeschooling and church schools, analyzing how and why they exist, and what they reflect about the compulsory education system. The compulsory system and its strengths and weaknesses have been studied in great depth: despite this, very little attention has been paid to the idea that the answers to the problems within the system may in fact lie outside the system. Yet that the answers are outside the system is a reality experienced by thousands of people now actively involved in alternative education in Japan. This dissertation is a tribute to their many efforts to meet needs that the compulsory education system has failed to meet.
My research was hampered by a lack of accurate or centrally-collected statistics, a lack of existing research into alternative education in Japan, and a lack of English-language materials. These problems reflect the fact that although alternative education exists all over Japan, it exists essentially in the form of individual responses to individual needs. It is not yet possible to talk of an ‘alternative education movement’, a ‘free school movement’, a ‘homeschool movement’, or even a ‘church school movement’ (although this is perhaps nearer reality) because the individuals involved have not united – perhaps because they have not been forced to unite – behind any common goals. Thanks to the Internet, however, they do form networks in which they can meet and exchange opinions: in the end, much of my research involved identifying common ideas and needs expressed by individual families and schools, and by the networks in which they participate. I believe that the resulting analytical overview of alternative education presented here is an accurate one, and will pave the way for further and deeper research.
The Roles of Free Schools, Homeschooling, and Church Schools
This study began with a discussion of the practical and legal demands of the compulsory education system, and three practical challenges they present for anyone choosing alternative education. These were identified as legal issues, social stigma, and the path to higher education, and although they cause difficulties, it was seen that these are not insurmountable obstacles: the legal issues are far from clear-cut, and social attitudes are unlikely to undergo any sudden change, but MEXT’s current policy of leniency towards those who have ‘dropped out’ of school smoothes the way for everyone involved in alternative education, and has also resulted in opportunities to opt back into mainstream education at the high school or university level.
It was observed that families and students can be broken down into two distinct categories according to their motivation for choosing alternative education. The ‘drop out’ category accounts for the majority of students involved in alternative education, and their existence raises questions about why the system is unable to meet their needs. Alternative education, especially in the form of free schools, was seen to function as a safety net for a small percentage of the vast numbers of children who ‘drop out’ of the compulsory system every year. The fact that children in free schools, homeschooling, and church schools are able to have a positive educational experience outside the compulsory education system points to the conclusion that the ‘problem’ of school non-attendance may actually be a healthy response to a sick system.
The second category of families and students was termed the ‘opt out’ category. These families feel that the educational needs of their children can best be met outside the compulsory system, and have created their own practical alternatives to it. They express a variety of reasons for ‘opting out’, and these point to some specific needs which the compulsory education system may fail to meet: these are detailed below.
Free schools, homeschooling, and church schools were identified as three different responses to the needs of ‘drop out’ and ‘opt out’ students. That all three categories use katakana versions of English words to describe themselves is partially attributable to the unavailability of the most suitable Japanese words, but also reflects both their outward looking nature, gathering ideas from the US in particular, and their position on the fringe of Japanese society.
Free schools were seen to exist as a ‘citizens’ response’ to problems in the education system, and their main role is to meet the needs of ‘drop out’ students by providing them with freedom from problems they experience within the system – they sometimes focus on this at the expense of providing any useful curriculum. They exist in direct response to the needs of children.
Homeschooling was shown to exist largely to meet the needs of ‘drop out’ students, as detailed above, but also those of ‘opt out’ families. Homeschooling provides a freedom to pursue education in a way individually suited to the needs of the child and family. It was noted that ‘opt out’ homeschooling choices are often defined in terms of parental wishes concerning the children’s education, rather than in terms of the direct needs of a child.
The church schools were seen to exist in response to a parental need or desire to educate their children in a setting with a Christian worldview: they offer a similar curriculum to state schools, but imbue it with the Christian faith. They can be said to offer the freedom to teach faith in school. The rhetoric of the church schools has strong ‘opt out’ tendencies, and the majority of their students fall into the ‘opt out’ category, although the family atmosphere they provide and their focus on the value of the individual also makes them an attractive place for some ‘drop out’ students.
Analysis of free schools, homeschooling, and church schools also highlighted some specific groups of children whose needs may not be adequately met in the compulsory system. These children fall into both ‘drop out’ and ‘opt out’ categories, and include: children needing space to ‘think for themselves’; children who have been bullied; children escaping academic pressure; children who just do not ‘fit the mould’; children whose parents’ ideology differs from that of the state, including some Christian families; children with ‘special needs’; and children holding dual-nationality. It was noted that MEXT is aware of many of the issues faced by these children, and has taken steps to help them, but the fact that so many children remain outside the system demonstrates that MEXT’s measures are inadequate. Almost all MEXT”s efforts are aimed at getting the children back into the system, and the rhetoric of the alternative educators indicates that this may be a misguided goal that can never completely meet the educational needs of all the children in Japan.
The opinions and needs expressed by individuals involved in alternative education point to the fact that the compulsory system is a place where, to misquote Orwell (1946), ‘all children are equal, but some children are more equal than others’. The system provides similar opportunities to each child, but makes little allowance for children having unique personalities and differing needs and abilities: as Okano and Tsuchiya (1999) argue, not all students are equally able to take advantage of what it offers. The system neither accepts these children as they are, nor makes adequate provision to help them. The role of free schools, homeschooling, and church schools is to provide an alternative educational environment for children whose needs the compulsory education system has failed to meet.
Issues for Further Discussion
This dissertation highlighted several issues related to alternative education which merit further discussion and research.
Firstly, the stance of the ‘opt out’ alternative educators raises the question of where the ultimate responsibility for education lies. The current compulsory education system obliges parents to have their children educated by the state or in state-approved institutions. Whether this is compatible with the constitution, and indeed with human rights, is open to debate, and similar issues have been central for alternative educators, and particularly homeschoolers, in other countries. At one end of the scale, US homeschoolers eventually won legal recognition of their right to homeschool: at the other end of the scale, in Germany, homeschoolers have been imprisoned or had decisions regarding their children’s education taken out of their hands (Hurd, 2007). It is possible that Japan’s ‘opt out’ alternative educators may one day have to argue for their rights in court.
A second theme for further research is the area of religion and education. The role of ‘faith schools’ has come under scrutiny in other countries against a backdrop of religious terrorism. In the UK, the National Union of Teachers has opposed government funding of faith schools (Smithers, 2006), and an Oxford professor ignited public debate by expressing a strong opinion that faith is a ‘virus’ and should be eradicated rather than passed on (Channel Four, 2006). The UK government, however, has so far defended faith-based schools on the grounds that they are subject to regular checks and have good reputations and academic track records (Baker and Freeman, 2005, 10; Smithers, 2006). The three church school principals I interviewed said that they had never been accused of religious indoctrination, and did not expect it to become an issue. Nevertheless, as the topic of religion and education receives increasing attention worldwide, it may eventually come to the fore even in seemingly tolerant Japan.
Thirdly, the focus on the individual needs of children demonstrated in all three forms of alternative education shows that these are to some extent ignored in the compulsory system, although critics agree that overall it produces a well-educated and highly capable workforce. Rohlen (1983, 319) commented that ‘contributions to the economic ledger and to the functioning of the social system are notable… but education should do more for the human spirit’. The renewed focus on patriotism found in the 2006 Fundamental Law of Education, which calls on schools to cultivate ‘love of the nation and homeland’ (Cortazzi, 2007), and the assimilationist policies applied to non-Japanese and dual-nationals in the education system also raise questions about whether the system is building the nation at the expense of the needs of its individual children.
The Way Ahead for Alternative Education
Finally, what can be said of the future of alternative education in Japan? It should be remembered that although free schools, homeschoolers, and church schools are now to be found across Japan, the numbers of children involved are low compared to figures for school non-attendance. Financial, time, and distance considerations mean that alternative education is not available to all; the lack of a central information point means that it can be difficult for families to find out what choices exist; alternative education lacks official endorsement, and schools and education boards rarely encourage students to get involved; and a lack of government inspections or regulations results in a dearth of accountability among schools and homeschoolers that is a cause for concern.
Those involved in alternative education, however, are highly committed and motivated, often working in a volunteer capacity, and actively ‘thinking outside the box’, responding to the needs of children and their families rather than to rules and regulations governing education. The rhetoric of the groups tends to focus on the positive aspects of alternative education, rather than negative aspects of the compulsory system: they do not express any hope of reforming the system, but have turned their backs on it and created something more suited to their needs. They keep a low profile and avoid any political limelight or official confrontation with the authorities as they do so. Because of the magnitude of the school ‘drop out’ problem, MEXT’s recent attitude to alternative education has been lenient, and free schools, homeschoolers, and church schools enjoy an unofficial freedom to pursue education in their own way.
If MEXT’s current lenient attitude continues, more concessions may be made to alternative educators, and increased recognition and support may enable them to meet the needs of greater numbers of children. If political opinion swings away from leniency, however, the attitudes of the ‘opt out’ alternative educators in particular may spur the government into action, and the legal debate for which HSLDA Japan is poised may ensue.
Alternative education remains the choice of a small minority in Japan, and is viewed as ‘second-best’ by many people. But its existence proves that while the government may see children as statistics, parents do not: while the government and MEXT discuss policy decisions and the outworking of the new Fundamental Law of Education, parents and children are voting with their feet and quietly getting on with practical forms of alternative education. Rothermel (2002) asks, ‘How, though, can we really determine what kind of education is best if we only look to one method?’ Year by year, the number of children in Japan who have participated in free schools, homeschooling, or church schools increases, and if the results of their experiences are positive, this will add fuel to arguments that the answers to the problems within Japan’s education system may actually only be found outside of it.
Copyright & reproduced here by permission of Heather Nelson