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Yuki Ujiie’s first year of junior high school was agony: He was beaten by bullies, ignored by his classmates and forced to eat alone when everyone else lunched in groups.
Though Ujiie put up with the situation for months, the final straw came when his teacher suggested that he join a girl’s group during lunchtime in late October. He stopped going to school the very next day.
For the past five years, Ujiie, 18, has been enrolled in the Tokyo Shure free school in Kita Ward, which accepts students who feel they can’t attend public schools for various reasons.
“The thought of suicide crossed my mind. . . . For some people, it becomes a choice of either going to a school that is a living hell, or killing oneself,” Ujiie said in late July while studying for a national exam to get a high school graduation certificate.
“I want people to know that there is another path,” he said.
While most children have little difficulty fitting into the public education system, for some it can be a harrowing environment. Despite measures introduced by the education ministry, many students continue to commit suicide after extreme abuse and the number of truants at elementary and junior high schools has remained at around 12,000 since 2001, when it hit a postwar peak.
For such students, private so-called free schools are a sanctuary. Costwise, they are not free, but they lack the rigid structure of the standard education system.
Many such schools, which enroll children roughly between the ages of 6 and 20 and charge about ¥40,000 per month, were established in the 1980s after truancy levels began to rise, experts say. They are run by a variety of entities, including nonprofit organizations, private-sector companies and even groups of mothers. Although no official figures are available, experts estimate that a few hundred have been set up across the nation so far.
Although curricula vary from school to school, they usually don’t impose a fixed schedule and put the emphasis on the personal choices of students, who get to decide what to study and other activities they want to engage in. For example, some children at Tokyo Shure study math, while others read manga. Free schools don’t recruit qualified teachers to oversee the students — the role of the employees is merely to support them.
“Simply put, free schools are a place where children can” go free of the threat of bullying, said Toru Kameda, general manager of the Center for Educational Management Studies at the PHP research institute. “Some free schools have a loose schedule, such as what to study on Mondays and activities on Tuesdays, but others have no schedule at all and let children play the guitar and watch TV (for example).
“Children need a (safe) environment, and for a majority of them, regular schools and their home are suitable. But I believe there is a need for free schools to serve as an alternative,” said Kameda, who has visited more than 30 of the institutes nationwide to study effective truancy-prevention methods.
Free schools, however, are neither accredited nor recognized by the government.
“In Japan, all elementary and junior high school students must enroll at regular schools and parents are obliged to send their children there. But in reality, children who don’t or can’t attend enter free schools” instead, Kameda said.
In 1992, the education ministry began allowing public schools to count the number of days their students spend at free schools as part of their regular attendance. Such children — and even those who don’t attend any school — are still allowed to graduate from elementary and junior high school.
Still, the fact that free schools are unaccredited can cause concern among parents, who keep pressuring their children to tough it out at public schools however hard a time they are having, according to experts.
“Many parents think their children’s future is over once they leave the national education system,” said Kunio Nakamura, executive director of the Tokyo Shure NPO. “But as our own graduates demonstrate, students have no problem learning at alternative schools.”
Founded in 1985 by a group of parents with children unable to go to public schools, the organization today oversees some 100 children at its three free schools in Tokyo and Chiba Prefecture. About 1,200 have “graduated,” of whom some have passed the university entrance exam while other younger students have returned to mainstream education, Nakamura said.
“If (free schools) are supported by the (legal) system, I believe parents would feel more free about enrolling their children” at such institutions, he said.
Nakamura and about 20 others, including a lawyer and several professors, are working on a draft plan that would legally recognize free schools. The group plans to hold a gathering in October to discuss the matter further, and hopes to approach lawmakers in the near future and request that they submit a bill based on their proposals to the Diet.
“Even if we can’t stop bullying, I believe we can prevent children from killing themselves. By changing the notion that children must go to (public) schools I believe many could be saved,” Nakamura said.
But even if alternative schools are officially recognized, some parents still worry that their children’s academic development will suffer if they enroll.
“You can’t tell which route will make a child’s academic abilities high or low. There are free school students who have entered universities and others who landed jobs” upon completing their studies, Kameda of PHP said. “Public schools are a place to study, whereas free schools do not necessarily put the focus on” academic prowess.
A system must be introduced that accepts children the way they are and allows them to build on positive progress, even if it is relatively minor, he said.
“At regular schools, they have this ideal of what students should become, and they try to educate by pushing them to reach this standard,” Kameda said.
“It’s true that most children’s abilities can be developed through such an education system. But there are some who just can’t fit into this framework. And I believe that for such students, a different approach is necessary.”
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