When the coin hit the floor, the children gasped in surprise during a science class at Japan Freinet, a free school in Toshima Ward, Tokyo. They were experimenting to see which would fall first — the coin or a piece of paper of the same size.
Ten children in grade school and junior high school had sat in a circle to predict the outcome.
“I think it will fall at the same time. I remember that Galileo conducted such an experiment,” said one of the children. “The coin will fall first. The paper will flutter to the ground,” said another.
The coin, of course, won out, and each child was tasked with finding out why by the next class.
Japan Freinet, headed by Hiroshi Kohata, 66, a former elementary school teacher, focuses on conducting small classes and encouraging his charges to find out the answers on their own. The school also has English language lessons taught by a British teacher, and students visit museums and zoos once a week.
Koichiro Yazawa, 14, has been studying at Japan Freinet since he was a sixth-grader. He started missing classes at his regular school when he caught a cold, and after a while, he stopped going entirely.
“At first I was anxious about not going to school, but now I feel there is a different path,” Yazawa said. “I can take classes here that other schools don’t offer.”
Free schools are education institutions not designated as schools under the government system. They offer an alternative education to many students who have stopped going to regular schools because of bullying and other reasons.
Since they operate outside the government’s framework, they have no obligation to follow the state’s rigorous curriculum guidelines. But the downside is they do not automatically qualify as compulsory education, similar to home schooling.
According to an education ministry survey, 122,902 children, or 1.21 percent of the total, in elementary and junior high schools didn’t attend school in fiscal 2014. Meanwhile, a separate ministry survey found that 4,196 children attended free schools and other private education institutions as of last March.
Established in 1985, Tokyo Shure is another free school.
“We have been offering a place for children to grow up outside school to guarantee their right to education,” said Keiko Okuchi, 74, who runs the free school.
As the number of students who didn’t attend regular school grew, the education ministry in 1992 put out a notice saying attendance at free schools can be considered as attendance to regular elementary and junior high schools if the school principal at the regular school approves.
But that doesn’t change the government’s fundamental stance that only regular schools are able to guarantee the right to education, Okuchi of Tokyo Shure said, noting that many parents who follow the government’s stance virtually drag their children, who refuse to go to school, out of their home and force their attendance.
Efforts have been made in recent years to change the situation.
In July 2014, a government education panel urged that free schools be regarded as government-designated schools and offered subsidies.
Last May, a nonpartisan group of lawmakers proposed a draft bill to allow free schools and home schooling to qualify as compulsory education. Under the proposal, a local board of education needs to approve individual study plans drafted by parents.
Okuchi welcomes the move, saying it will create an atmosphere in which students don’t feel they are being forced to go to school. Meanwhile, government subsidies will help to keep tuition down.
Okuchi, however, is worried that free schools may lose the freedom to decide on a curriculum for their kids.
“I wonder if it might mean less freedom. My son seems to be enjoying (free school) just fine,” said one mother.
Some lawmakers in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are reluctant to ease restrictions on free schools over concerns that it may encourage students to stay away from regular school.
Others are worried that more profit-minded companies may enter the market, which is one of the reasons why the bill has yet to be submitted to the Diet.
Expert opinions are mixed over whether to allow free school and home schooling education to qualify as compulsory education.
Akito Kita, a professor of child support at Waseda University, backs the move, considering more than 100,000 students currently do not attend education ministry-designated schools.
“In Japan, children tend to lose self-confidence just by (not going) to school,” he said. “It’s important to send out a message that it’s all right to go to institutions other than schools.”
Ryoko Uchida, a psychological counselor, however, disagrees.
There isn’t a need to change the law because attendance at free schools already qualifies as attendance at regular schools, provided principals of the latter agree, Uchida noted.
“If free schools and homes are categorized as schools, it may turn (those safe havens) into ‘schools’ and drive the children (who want to get away from school) into a corner,” she said.
“Some students stopped going to school because of bullying and other reasons, making them somewhat allergic to schools,” said Uchida. “Some don’t even want to look at notebooks and textbooks that remind them of school.”