Monday, 31 August 2009

Are the Tories the friends of home educators?

A spirit of cautious optimism is abroad among many of those opposed to the implementation of the Badman Report's recommendations. The feeling seems to be that if only home educators can fight a desperate rearguard action and delay any new legislation until the next election, then they will be home and dry. After all, this is a Labour government inspired piece of nonsense to which the Tories are opposed, isn't it? Well yes and no, but mainly, I am afraid, no.

New laws are seldom brought in these days because they are wise, prudent and principled. All politicians piss in the same pot and both the main political parties in this country are essentially populist in nature; they play to the gallery, rather than operating according to any abstract notions of justice and the good of mankind. Two things must be borne in mind about this proposed new legislation. Firstly, there are very few home educators, compared with the vast number of people who do send their children to school. Secondly, the average individual finds the whole thing somewhat fishy, grossly unfair and probably another middle class craze. After all, everybody else has to send their kids to school to be tested to destruction, why shouldn't these people do the same as the rest of us? What's special about them? Names like Victoria Climbie and Eunice Spry also resonate in the public consciousness in connection with home education, however irrationally. In other words, cracking down on home education would not be at all unpopular with most people and many would actively welcome such a move.

As a matter of realpolitic, Cameron would be mad less than a year before an election, to alienate perhaps a hundred thousand voters who have children being educated at home. His party have accordingly limited themselves to bland and anodyne statements to the effect that they support the right of parents to choose home education for their children. Since this is what Ed Balls and Graham Badman are also saying, this is not particularly reassuring. I imagine that the word has gone out from above that the official Conservative line on this is, "Keep it vague, make sympathetic tutting noises about this iniquitous government and for God's sake don't promise these lunatics anything definite".

My guess is that even if new legislation does not reach the statute books before the general election, then the next Conservative administration will introduce something very similar of their own. Opposition parties often pinch good ideas in this way as soon as they are in power. Remember that anything involving the protection of kiddies and old folks makes a government look caring and concerned. I should think that mid term, as they are slipping in the opinion polls would be a good time for such a move. Wait until some kid unknown to the local authority is neglected or even murdered by his mother and then pounce. Bear in mind that the majority of home educators are probably left leaning, so this would not damage the Tories' core voters.

In short, change is coming and it will not be particularly affected by the political complexion of the cabinet. Relying upon any Conservative assurance now, short of a manifesto pledge, is sure to end in disappointment for those hoping to avoid this change.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Education Otherwise - flirting with the establishment

One of the disadvantages of a representative democracy such as ours is that we sometimes have to decide who our representatives actually are. In places like parliament, this is fairly easy; we choose them by secret ballot. In other cases, the people who become the representatives of certain sections of the population do so because they are quick off the mark, unscrupulous or have loud voices. This has happened with certain ethnic minorities, where hundreds of thousands of citizens end up being "represented" by groups of people who have got where they are simply by virtue of being pushy and media savvy.

Education Otherwise is regarded as being virtually synonymous with home education in the UK. Talk about home education and you have to refer to EO. For instance, almost every local authority mentions them when providing information on elective home education. A lot of parents join EO as a matter of course as soon as they make the decision to home educate, even if they then allow their membership to lapse after the first year. I have therefore been watching with fascination as this organisation, once a byword for radicalism and non-conformity, gradually eases itself into a comfortable niche as the establishment's partner in all matters relating to home education.

The signs that this was happening were plain long before Graham Badman started talking about the "Tasmanian Model" of home education practice. Some Trustees of Education Otherwise were very quick to pick up on Badman's apparently chance remarks on this subject and it was obvious that they visualised a role for Education Otherwise similar to that of the Tasmanian Home Educators Advisory Council. Just what the country needs, another quango! Others have noticed these developments and are uneasy about them. As I am not even a member, it could rightly be argued that it is really none of my business, but I have a personal angle here, in that I believe that I am able correctly to identify and empathise with the primary motivation of one of the main players in the affair.

Fiona Nicholson, a leading light of Education Otherwise, is one of those rare parents who have educated their child all the way through from five until sixteen, without once sending the kid to school. The present writer is in the same situation. The quasi bereavement felt as this process draws to a close is a curious sensation, akin I should imagine, to that felt by mothers on their child's first day of school. Some of us in this position sublimate these emotions by starting obscure Blogs and raving on in them about home education! Others, and I suspect that Fiona Nicholson is one of them, cast around for somewhat grander displacement activities to occupy themselves with and enable them to remain involved with home education. Her planned appearance at the Children Missing Education Conference on October 6th has not gone unremarked and I think that we will be hearing a good deal more of La Nicholson's activities as she transforms herself little by little into the official representative of home educating parents in this country. Who knows where this will ultimately lead, a seat in the Lords perhaps?

None of this is meant maliciously, as I am sure Fiona knows. She is, after all, one of the few people on home education lists with a sense of humour and certainly the only one whom I have encountered with a knowledge of the Molesworth books. So good luck, Fiona! I would be very surprised if we do not read a lot more about you in the future, particularly once the new legislation is in place.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

But what about laboratories?

One of the reasons that teachers find home education so threatening is that it proves their services are not really as vital to society as they would have us believe. The great myth which they encourage society to embrace is that learning and education can only take place effectively within huge buildings full of specialised equipment and staffed by highly trained professionals. This is quite untrue.

I have been prompted to write this by my daughter's latest IGCSE results, which were A* in Physics and Chemistry. When friends of mine, mostly teachers and social workers, learned that I was planning to continue her education past primary age and to teach her to IGCSE level, there was a great shaking of heads and sucking in of breath in shocked amazement. Almost to a man, and woman, they said when the subject of teaching science came up, " But what about laboratories?" . The idea being that nobody could possibly study science unless they had a very large, expensively resourced room in which to do so. Well, my daughter has now acquired Biology, Physics and Chemistry IGCSEs, all at A*. What happened?

What happened was that we discovered, as others have done before us, that like every other academic subject, science can be tackled on the kitchen table just as efficiently as in a laboratory. Indeed, it can be tackled far better in this way. In a typical school science lesson a carefully conducted experiment might call for the addition of citric acid to another substance in order to observe the reaction. In the kitchen, this can be extended to the addition of ethanoic acid (vinegar), ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) and then any other acids which might be in the cupboard. There is not a single part of the GCSE syllabus which cannot be pursued in the kitchen at least as well as in the most up to date and modern school science department.

I have given science as an example, but the same is true of any other subject, from Music to Acting, History to Food Technology. There is not a single academic subject which cannot be more effectively tackled at home than it can in the best school. Teachers are anxious in the extreme that this dangerous knowledge does not become generally known! The reason is obvious. The key to academic success lies not in the spending of ever increasing sums of money on electronic whiteboards and other expensive gadgets. Instead, it lies in quiet, methodical one-to-one instruction, the type of tuition which home education is uniquely well placed to provide for a child. No wonder that most teachers seem to be implacably opposed to home education on principle; it strikes at the root of their identity as uniquely invaluable educators of the nation's young people.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Can we define autonomous education?

Discovering whether or not autonomous home education is as effective as conventional teaching is by no means a simple business. When we try to compare two different methods of teaching reading in schools, for example "Look and Say" versus synthetic phonics, we can be fairly sure just what is involved in each case. A teacher using synthetic phonics in Sheffield will be doing much the same as somebody in the East End of London. As a result, we can be pretty confident that we are comparing like with like. This is very far from being the case with autonomous education. There are a number of reasons for this.

To begin with, the expressions autonomous learning, unschooling, informal learning, child led education and natural learning are often used interchangably, as though they all meant precisely the same thing. This is not always the case. Even if we take one method, say autonomous education, we can never be quite sure that the person to whom we are talking means exactly the same as we do by the term. Some parents use autonomous education to mean leaving things entirely to the child. Others are quick to point out that this is more like a laissez faire model of education. Some parents jump in as soon as a child shows any interest in a subject and bury their child beneath a pile of books about whatever they have enquired about. Other parents will direct the child to ways of finding out for herself, feeling that the acquisition of research skills is vital. All these parents call what they are doing autonomous education and yet they all mean different things by the term.

Added to this are the enormous differences in the child's environment. Some home educated children's homes are crammed with books, others have a television set blaring out all day long. Some children see their parents reading books all the time, while others never see their parents read anything at all. All of this makes it very hard to say anything confidently about such a vague idea as "autonomous education" or "unschooling".
There is little doubt that some children will thrive in a home where they can direct their own learning. They will pick up reading, find things out and organise their own studying. For others, this sort of lifestyle might prove disastrous from an educational viewpoint. They might not learn very much at all in this way.

We judge the efficacy of an educational technique by examining a large group of children being taught by method A with a large group of children learning by method B. We try and allow for other factors such as class, age, mental ability and so on, reducing the variables as far as we can to just the competing teaching methods. This is very hard to do with a concept like autonomous education, about the precise nature of which even its practitioners cannot agree. Identifying, as Rothermel and Thomas do, a small group of parents who claim to be autonomous educators and whose children are apparently doing well academically, is not enough to demonstrate that this is an effective pedagogy. We have no idea if the next group of "autonomous educators" we look at are doing the same sort of thing at all as the first group. We cannot therefore generalise from such limited and small scale research.

A personal message!

I thought it might be worth reminding some of those who seem to get so ratty with my views on home education, that this is a subject dear to my heart. For over twenty years I have worked in the East End supporting families containing children with special educational needs. As part of this work, I have helped a number of families to deregister their children from special schools so that they can be educated at home. I never for a moment considered sending my own child to a school. What this means is that since the mid eighties, long before it became a fashionable, middle class craze like Pilates or organic food, I have been deeply involved both professionally and personally with home education. The way some people talk, one might think that I was opposed to the whole idea!

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Who wants help and advice from local authorities?

Those parents who choose not to send their children to school often, like the present writer, neither need nor want any support from their local authority. Nobody knows what percentage of home educators fall into this category. Certainly, on the EO and HE-UK message boards, such parents seem to be a minority. The great majority of those posting appear to have withdrawn their children from school for various reasons. Chief among these reasons seem to be bullying and the inability of schools to cater adequately for various special educational needs.

Those who deregister their children from schools are, it appears to me, a different case from parents who never send them in the first place. They actually wanted their children to go to school and were problems not to arise would presumably be happy for their children to stay there until they were at least sixteen, taking GCSEs like everybody else. When parents like this take their children out of school, they often want them to continue learning in the same way as they have previously been doing at school.

One of the more encouraging and positive aspects of the Badman review was that he recommended local authorities to offer more support and advice to home educating parents, including access to examinations. It is by no means uncommon to see posts from parents who have deregistered their children and are appealing for help and support from other home educating parents. The usual advice is, "Do nothing! Avoid the LA! Leave your child to do nothing for months! Refuse any offer of visits!" This is the so-called "deschooling" process.

I strongly suspect that many parents who take their children out of school due to problems would be grateful for support from their local authority. In many cases they want their children to continue with their studies and ultimately take their GCSEs. The standard local authority response is not very helpful. "You have made your bed," they say in effect, "Now lay in it! Do not expect us to pay for examinations or help you at all!"

I think that a good many parents who take their children from school would appreciate a programme of support and help from LAs. At the very least, it should be on offer for those who do want it. It is to be hoped that this part of the Badman report at least is implemented.

The "Market Inspector" model of home education inspection.

It occurs to me that a good analogy of the inspection of home education is provided by the market inspectors who keep an eye on street markets. There is just such a market near my office in East London and I have had ample opportunity to observe how it works.

Most stallholders view the inspectors as a bit of a nuisance, although they can see why they are needed. They are not popular, but neither are they particularly disliked. Most stallholders co-operate readily enough, although there are a number who are always complaining and refuse to do anything that the inspectors say without a huge amount of fuss and bother. These are the awkward squad, who in my younger days would have been described as "Barrack-room lawyers". Similarly among the inspectors, most just want to get on and do their job without too much trouble. Like most of us, they want an easy life. There are of course one or two really difficult types who set out to make life hard for the stallholders, but these are, mercifully, the exception.

It strikes me that this is very much a model for the world of home education and its inspection by local authorities. Most home educating parents, I think, see the need for inspections. As long as these are not too frequent or intrusive, they tolerate them. There are a number though who have a propensity to stand on their rights. They are shrill and voluable and some of them urge all parents to refuse visits and join them in a campaign of mass resistance to any attempt to check up on what they are doing with their children. Similarly, there are difficult and unpleasant inspectors and educational welfare officers who actively disapprove of home education and see it as their mission to give us a hard time. Like the awkward market inspectors, I think that this is a minority.

Something to bear in mind when one decides to go head to head with the state is that the state has far more resources than we do as individuals. It can afford to spend huge sums on lawyers, indeed it can actually change the law if it feels in the mood; as we are currently seeing with the proposed new legislation. It strikes me that a lot of home educators are spending so much time these days fighting the government, both local and national, that they must have very little time left to spend on their children. This seems sad and a little unnecessary. Which is likely to cause most disruption to their children's education; a brief annual visit or a sustained campaign lasting months on end fighting against such visits?

Sunday, 23 August 2009

To what extent are UK home educators architects of their own misfortune?

For over twenty years or so home education in this country rolled along more or less smoothly. True, some LEAs were more intrusive than others and some parents were given a hard time. After the Harrison case though in 1981, it became more or less accepted that parents did in fact have a right to educate their own children. The majority of parents to whom one talked seemed to have established some species of modus vivendi with their local authority.

The real change in attitudes seemed to coincide with widespread access to the internet. Now any parent considering home education could at once be in immediate contact with other like minded souls. They could exchange notes, tell each other their legal rights and join online communities. With this easier communication came a hardening of approach towards local authorities. Whereas most families had before this regarded visits by their LEA as an unavoidable nuisance and necessary evil, it now became common for people to stand on their rights and decline to have any contact with LEAs other than sending a written report. To use an idiomatic expression, one might say that they were winding each other up into confrontation rather than co-operation. This all happened at a time when the numbers of home educators seemed to be rising inexorably. I don't doubt that this too is connected with internet access.

Inevitably, LEA officers became irritated at what they saw as such bloody mindedness. There was also genuine concern at the rising numbers of children being withdrawn from school. It was now that the local authorities began agitating for new powers. The rest, as they say, is history. I am well aware that this perspective on the current situation is not one shared by all home educating parents. Never the less, I have received enough emails over the last couple of years or so from other UK home educators to convince me that I am not alone in my analysis of the situation. In other words, other parents besides me feel that if fewer parents had ended up in confrontation with their local authorities and there had been a bit more give and take, then the Badman review would never have been held.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

How many children in the UK are home educated?

Guessing how many children in the United Kingdom are educated at home by their parents has for the last couple of decades been a popular pastime with home educators. Unfortunately new legislation, possibly combined with data from Contactpoint, is about to signal the end for this much loved parlour game.

Estimates for the number of home educated children in the UK range from a modest twenty thousand to the frankly unbelievable figure of over half a million, of which more later. Because nobody has any idea of the true figures, estimates tend inevitably to be based more upon the prejudices and political interests of those making the guesses, rather than being founded in objective reality. Everybody playing this game in effect plucks a number out of thin air, then doubles, trebles or quadruples it and adds the date or time of day. What motivates people to exaggerate or underestimate numbers of home educated children in this way?

A few years ago, the trend among home educators was to suggest that the number of children being educated at home was well over a hundred thousand. Small, special interest groups often pretend to have more members than is actually the case; inflating the figures in this way makes them feel bigger and more important. Perhaps the most remarkable of these high estimates was that arrived at by Paula Rothermel, when she claimed to have discovered that over half a million children in this country, (560,600 to be exact), were not registered at a school.

It become clear after a while that home educators were likely to be shooting themselves in the foot by these wild exaggerations. After all, if hundreds of thousands of children were really not being taught in schools then the government would feel duty bound to do something about it. Home educating groups began frantically back-pedalling, soon getting the numbers below the fifty thousand mark. A fringe activity, hardly worth the government's attention!

In 2007, York Consulting released the findings of an investigation financed by the DCSF. Their concusions broadly agreed with those in Graham Badman's report. Somewhere in the region of twenty thousand home educated children were known to local authorities. There were perhaps double that number unknown to the authorities. Interestingly, Graham Badman's suggested upper limit for the number of children, eighty thousand, has been attacked by some home educators as being a gross exaggeration. It is still only a seventh of the five hundred and sixty thousand hinted at by Rothermel in 2000 and still featured on some websites. It just shows how times change.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Home education and gender

There seems little doubt that most home educators in this country are women. I have been wondering lately to what extent, if any, this might have a bearing upon the apparent leaning towards autonomy or unschooling in home education which we see today. There certainly seems to be a great difference between the typical home educator now and people like Harry Lawrence, the fanatical Hothousing father, whom many will remember from the mid eighties. This really is purely anecdotal, but the few male home educators whom I have come across do seem to be very different from the run of the mill home educating mother. A lot of the time the home educating fathers seem to be arguing with lifeguards at the swimming pool, pushing their kids to the front at various activities, breaking the rules at the zoo, shouting and placing their children in harms way by encouraging them to do dangerous things. Meanwhile, the female home educators are fussing around with hats, scarves and sun cream, trying anxiously to ensure that their children are not too hot, cold, nervous, pressurised, traumatised, over-stimulated, suffering from a gluten allergy or being educated.

I suspect, though am quite unable to prove, that male home educators tend to be much more concerned with what one might call hard outcomes; things which can be measured and examined such as examinations and so on. A lot of the women seem to be more concerned with intangibles like security, happiness and fulfilment. Is this a fundamental difference in approach? Is one of the main objections to Graham Badman and his report that he is a man and keeps banging on about testing and measuring? Is this basically about an essentially male habit of analysing and categorising, as opposed to the supposed female traits of being intuitive and relying upon instinct to measure outcomes? After all, it is not just that testing is seen as unimportant by many autonomous home educators; it is viewed by many as being positively harmful. Testing is seen not merely as pointless and irrelevant, but something which could actually destroy that which is being measured. A strange idea indeed outside the world of quantum physics!

I cannot help also but wonder whether the furious opposition which I have myself encountered might at least in part be due to the fact that I am a man and most other home educators with whom I correspond are women. Mind you, it would be a rash person who discounted the other possibility, that my lack of popularity has more to do with the fact that I am an exceedingly irritating and abrasive individual, rather than being solely a product of my biological gender.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Autonomous Education - the evidence base

I have been repeatedly reproached for ignoring what others claim to be powerful and objective evidence of the efficacy of autonomous education. Since most of the large scale research on home education has taken place in North America, I propose to focus upon this.

The research on home education in this country, whether autonomous or structured, is sparse in the extreme. I have mentioned Rothermel's work with thirty five children, five of whom were tested for their reading ability. The most detailed study of autonomous education in the UK is probably Alan Thomas and Harriet Pattison's book "How Children Learn at Home", Continuum 2007. In it, they ask twenty six parents to talk about informal learning. This is of course a small, self-selected group. Seven of them were well known figures in the home education world and all but one belonged to home educating groups. There was no attempt to measure in any structured way the attainments or achievements of these people's children; the book is more an exploration of a philosophy and an answer to the question, "Could informal learning work and if so how?" The conclusion is that children learn lots of things apart from what they are taught at school and perhaps they learn more about reading and mathematics in this way than some people think. Interesting, but hardly solid evidence for the foundation of a new theory of pedagogy!

Turning now to the large scale research in North America, some of which has involved over twenty thousand home educated students, we run at once into a serious problem. Namely, that we are not comparing like with like. In other words, what is happening in the USA is not really comparable to what is happening in the UK and it is misleading to present evidence from America and use it to support any sort of teaching method used here. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, as I have already said previously, the motives for American home educators tend to be very different from those in this country. The main reason given by parents in the USA for educating their own children is to give them a better education. In this country it ends to be more of a lifestyle choice, with the main reasons given being to spend more time together as a family and to be able to do as they wish. When children are withdrawn from school this is seldom because they are not felt to be learning enough. Rather it is because they are being bullied or their supposed special needs are not being adequately catered for.

Perhaps the greatest difference in America and this country is the legal situation, which cannot but make a huge difference to how parents go about the business. Even those who describe themselves as "autonomous educators" probably mean something quite different from what is generally meant by the term here. Here is the reason.

Laws relating to home education in the USA vary from state to state. California is among the strictest and actually succeeded in banning home education briefly. Texas, despite a previous attempt to outlaw home education, is widely regarded as the most liberal and welcoming in its approach to home education. Sometimes people move there from other states in order to take advantage of tis liberal policies. Let us look at those "liberal" policies. Any parent home educating in Texas is legally obliged to teach reading, spelling, grammar, mathematics and citizenship to their children. It is a legal requirement that these be taught "in a bona fide manner". In other words, no leaving it to the child to decide when she will learn. Half of the states in America also require regular testing of home educated children in order to check on their progress.

It is not hard to see that requirements such as those above would have a very great effect upon the educational standard of home educated children. If one is obliged by law to teach spelling and grammar, then what they call autonomous education must surely be a little different from what we mean by the term? Similarly, many parents here claim that regular testing would make autonomous education impossible. So for half the states in the Union, we should presumably disregard any idea of the education being autonomous? This is why we need to treat reports of success in autonomous education from the USA with a certain amount of caution. When we combine this with the fact that at least half of home educating parents there are teaching their children because they think that they can do it better than the schools, we should begin to ask ourselves how much use the statistics there are in telling us anything about home education in the UK

I have said many times before that the only way of assessing home education in this country would be a large scale study involvng at least a thousand or so children whose outcomes were tracked throughout the age of compulsory education and beyond into adulthood. In order to be of any use, this would need to be combined with correlation of the educational methods used on the children. Until such a study is conducted in this country, then the whole question of whether autonomous education is a worthwhile enterprise remains open. That being so, it is quite permissable for any of us to begin statements about the topic with words such as, "I believe..." or "I think....", another thing for which I have been reproached.

Do all belief systems deserve equal respect?

Allie from Brighton raises an interesting point. She accuses me of disrespecting other people's beliefs. This was, needless to say, apropos of my article in the TES. The question is, should we accord respect to every point of view, even if we regard it as incorrect or or a bit screwy? I happen to regard, for instance, homeopathy as little better than raving lunacy. Should I just let others get on with this belief system, saying in effect, "It's none of my business"? Similarly, if I regard autonomous education as questionable and perhaps ineffective in many cases, is it really any affair of mine?

I suppose that if an adult wishes to follow some crank system like homeopathy, it is a matter of personal choice. If they wish to hazard their children's health by following this absurd practice, then I feel that any concerned person has a right to offer an opinion. It seems to me to be the same with autonomous education. If one feels that here is a strange idea which might deprive a large number of children of a good education, then I cannot for the life of me see why I should remain silent.

I have to say that as a home educator, many people have expressed the view that I must be a bit bonkers and that I am harming my child by pursuing this course of action. Why on earth should I object to this? I think that I am right, they think that I am muddle headed and wrong. I just cannot see why I should feel that they are being disrespectful, as Allie puts it, by holding their view that I am wrong. After all, for all I know to the contrary I may indeed be wrong.

It is, I think, because the welfare of children is involved in the matter of home education that I feel that I am entitled to speak my mind. I may of course be quite wrong in my views; it would not be the first time! But to feel, as Allie does, that it is wrong to say these things because they may cause offence is in my opinion too feeble for words. If I see somebody striking a child I will certainly speak out against it. Should I stay quiet for fear of disrespecting their belief in the virtues of physical abuse? I don't think so. Or if somebody is following a crank diet and not allowing their children to eat properly, is that my business? I am thinking here about some macrobiotic freaks in the States whose children developed beri beri. In those circumstances, faced with a choice of "disrespecting" their beliefs and rescuing a child from a potentially fatal illness, I know which I think is the greater evil.

I am not of course suggesting for a moment that autonomous education is in any way comparable to the cases I outline above, but the principle is the same.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Diversity of opinion among home educators

When first I became interested in home education in this country, twenty years ago before my daughter was born, I was hugely impressed by the variety of people involved and their different reasons for adopting this peculiar course of action. I observed a similar diversity of aim and opinion in the early nineties and even after my daughter was born in 1993. Some parents were home educating because they wanted their children to have a better and more structured education than that on offer at the local school, there were "Hot-Housers" like Harry Lawrence, others were hippy types, some opposed formal education altogether, there were various religious types. In short, it was a very mixed group of people with a large sprinkling of eccentrics and mavericks and no unifying ideology whatsoever.

Today, things seem quite different. There is a stifling orthodoxy about the whole business which, were I to be embarking upon the adventure rather than bringing it to a close, would certainly put me off. Imagine somebody on the EO or HE-UK message boards complaining that schools were too child centred and that they wanted a more rigorous education for their child! Or somebody who welcomed inspections by the LEA as a means to maintain standards among home educators. These sort of views were certainly around in the past and expressed openly. Not everybody agreed, but then getting home educators to agree was always a bit like herding cats! Today, those holding such views tend to keep their mouths firmly shut if they are involved with home educating groups. Even parents who do not object to an annual visit from the LA are attacked on the grounds that they are setting a dangerous precedent for the rest of the home educating community.

I find it sad that home education has changed in this way. I have always been a bit out of step with those around me; in politics, religion, culture and educational practice. I suppose that it was inevitable that as home education became an accepted and respectable way of life that my views on the subject should cause irritation and even anger. As those old Party members like Doris Lessing said when they tore up their membership cards after the Hungarian Uprising,"It is not me who is leaving the Party, but the Party who is leaving me...." I suppose that I shall have to take up some other cranky and outlandish lifestyle now that home education has become respectable. I can't decide what though. Even things like Scientology and Paganism seem to be mainstream these days!

HE-UK Message Board

Having been chucked off this particular site a few weeks ago, it occurs to me that those still using it might not be aware that all their posts are being read by a psychologist who lurks on the site with Mike Fortune-Wood's full co-operation. I refer, of course, to the famous Paula Rothermel. She is not the only professional who belongs to this list. I thought I would let people know this as Mike Fortune-Wood makes a great show of forbidding any researchers or professionals from his list; it was on these grounds that I was myself hoofed off. It might make some users feel a little self conscious to realise that every word they write is being scrutinised by a psychologist. Even worse than having their posts read by a hack journalist perhaps.......

Monday, 17 August 2009

Home Education - what's it got to do with anybody but the parents?

In English law parents are responsible for seeing to it that their children receive a suitable education. There are no plans to change this. (A surprising and paradoxical consequence is that if you send your child to a lousy school which fails to educate him, then it is you who are legally to blame rather than the school!) Many home educating parents feel that they should be left in peace to discharge this duty and that it is, essentially, nobody else's business how they go about it. Are they right?

The first thing to remember is of course that "my" child is not "mine" in the way that "my" car is. Nobody owns another person. If, to take a ridiculous example, I decided to join an Aztec cult and sacrifice my child to the Sun God, society would quite rightly intervene and stop me. Most would agree that this would be a good thing. I don't even need to go that far before society will step in. If I cut or even bruise my child, I can expect a visit from either the police or social services. If I leave a child alone in the house, fail to feed her, keep her warm, let her wander the streets, go out without adequate clothing, drink too much alcohol and many other things; society declares an interest. In a sense, "my" child belongs to everybody. What about education though? Surely that is a purely personal, family matter, of no concern to society in general?

Well, let us suppose that I raise my child to hate and despise black people. Or what if I taught her that members of other religions were evil and should be killed whenever they are encountered. I wonder what would happen if I were a habitual thief and allowed her to grow up thinking that it was alright to pick pockets and rob the neighbours? Perhaps I will let her grow up thinking that it is great to live on social security and never get a job. In this sense, the way that I raise my child can have a very serious impact upon the rest of society. I think it reasonable for society to take an interest in how I bring up my child if the result will be a dangerous or anti-social creature.

Finally, suppose that I avoid neglecting her or encouraging her to be a thief or a suicide bomber. What if I simply provide a cranky or inadequate education? Is that society's affair? Well, yes. If I don't teach my child proper values and train her to be a happy and useful member of society then other people might have to take care of her when she grows up. If she lives on benefits, cannot get a job because she is uneducated or perhaps has psychological problems which make her unable to function usefully in society, then all these things are a proper concern for the state. So I must conclude that the proper education of my child is not my business alone, but a matter which concerns the general good. If I do not educate her properly, then ten years down the road the tax payers of Britain might be obliged to support her. Society does have an interest in her education and it is not a purely personal decision how I go about fulfilling my duty in that direction.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Home Education Street School - Inspectors' Report

Home Education Street is a large, mixed school, catering for all ages; with an intake drawn from both rural and urban areas. It is, unfortunately, impossible to say how many pupils are on roll, as staff are opposed on ideological grounds from taking Registration. Between 50,000 and 80,000 pupils seems to be a likely figure.

Home Education Street School, unlike other educational establishments in England and Wales, has never before been inspected and this presented a number of problems. For instance, it has proved very difficult to discover what subjects, if any, are being taught. Indeed, we were wholly unable to establish firmly whether teaching of any description had actually been taking place. There are no written records of lessons, nor are any statistics available regarding examinations taken by pupils. This is an unsatisfactory state of affairs.

I was able to locate some notes made by a former teacher at the school, Miss P. Rothermel. These suggest that 35 of the younger pupils were doing quite well 11 years ago. unfortunately, Miss Rothermel cannot tell us how they did in secondary school, or what became of them at all. Some members of staff claimed that similar schools in the USA are doing alright and that we should therefore stop badgering Home Education Street School with a lot of silly questions and just look at how well things were going in America.

The situation with examination results is also sketchy. Some staff say that pupils have gone on to university, others say that this is not important any way. Miss Shena Deuschars, a member of staff, has exam results for 52 pupils going back to 2001. She refuses to say who they are though, due to the Data Protection Act. Since an estimated 10,000 children a year graduate from this school, it seems possible that many, perhaps most, leave with no qualifications at all.

A major difficulty that we encountered during our inspection was that the asking of questions was usually met with a barrage of shouting and abuse from the staff. The general view among the staff was that asking to give any account of their teaching practice was a flagrant violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

1. Keeping a proper register of pupils
2. Record to be kept of examination results
3. Brief annual account of teaching undertaken

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Home Education in the UK; Does it Work?

In Part 10 of his report, Graham Badman expresses doubt about autonomous learning and also says that he is not convinced by existing research studies on the outcomes for home educated children. I have already mentioned that much of the belief in the efficacy of home education in this country rests upon work with thirty five children over a decade ago, but what about all the evidence from the USA? Surely studies involving thousands of children and young people there shows that home education gives brilliant results, better in fact than schools?

There seems little doubt that home educated students in the United States succeed very well academically. Can we then conclude that home educated students in the UK enjoy similar success. Perhaps not. I have already talked about the different motivations for undertaking home education in the USA, compared with British parents. Just to remind ourselves, the most common reasons given by home educators in this country for not sending children to school was so that they could be closer as a family and do what they wanted. For those who withdraw their children from school, common reasons seem to be bullying or failure of the school to deal with a special need. In other words, education as such does not seem to be an important factor in the decision to home educate. In America, it is the commonest reason for home educating.

Another important difference between the two countries is

Friday, 14 August 2009

More about Paula Rothermel's work

In 1998, when she had been studying for two years at Durham University, Paula Rothermel conducted some research into home education. The results of that research have been quoted endlessly ever since by home educators, including the present author. In Deborah Durbin's book, Teach Yourself Home Education, is the standard account of this work, written in collaboration with Rothermel herself. Rothermel says that she was "overwhelmed with over a thousand responses, of which a smaller sample were analyzed". Elsewhere in the book it is mentioned that she questioned four hundred and nineteen home educating families. However, the important facts, the PIPS baseline assessments and the literacy tests were in fact restricted to fewer than fifty children, a very small number indeed. The actual figures are thirty five PIPS baselines assessments and five literacy tests administered by Rothermel. Another forty four literacy tests were conducted by the children's parents.

It is important to bear in mind when claiming that, "Paula Rothermel's research has shown", or proved or demonstrated, that we are usually talking about these same thirty five children and that this all took place eleven years ago. It is also perhaps worth bearing in mind that this work was carried out not by a professor but by a second year student. True, questions were asked of another four hundred or so parents via questionnaires. These discovered many things such as that parents found home educating fun and so on, but they do not shed any light on educational attainment. The facts, the meat of the matter, are to be found in those thirty five children.

Of course, the fact that it was a small sample is not in itself reason to disregard the findings of this particular research. I have to say though, that most home educators seem to be under the impression that the research is far more extensive than is actually the case. Most are astounded when told that the claims about academic achievement mostly boil down to these same thirty five children. Compared with work in the USA which looked at the academic achievement of over twenty thousand home educated children, this really is a tiny sample from which to draw any meaningful conclusions. We must also remember that all these children were under eleven, making the sample even more restricted. We must finally keep in mind that it was a self selected sample, limited to those who chose to become involved in the first place.

An awful lot of the home educating dogma in Britain today is founded upon this one sample. We routinely see that, "Paula Rothermel showed that working class parents make good home educators" or that "Paula Rothermel proved that home educated children do better than children at school." The next time you read such an extravagant claim, remember that it is almost certainly based upon one tiny, self selected sample from over a decade ago.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Paula Rothermel and Alan Thomas

Whenever home educators are trying to prove that their lifestyle is good for children, they invariably quote research by Paula Rothermel or Alan Thomas. The problem comes when you actually read the research, as as opposed to bandying about snippets on the internet. Because one of these authorities, or perhaps both, must be mistaken.

Let us start with Alan Thomas, a respected psychologist who has written key works on the subject of home education. In 1998 his book, "Educating Children at Home" was published. Based upon work with a hundred home educating families, he drew two important conclusions; both of which were enthusiastically received by home educators. Firstly, he suggested that although many parents began by teaching their children formally, most slipped into a more relaxed style, without lessons, timetables or conventional teaching. Secondly, he noticed that the children tended to be late in reading, but that when they did start reading, they rapidly caught up with school educated children. I think that most home educating parents would be inclined to agree with both propositions. In short, he believed that children taught informally often were late in reading, sometimes not doing so until eleven, twelve or even a little later.

Let us now look at Paula Rothermel's much quoted work, which contains the only real evidence that children home educated in the UK perform as well as those at school. At once, we see a problem. Rothermel comes to a completely different conclusion to Thomas. When she looks at the reading ability of young children, from five or six upwards, she finds that far from lagging behind the school children, they are in fact extraordinarily advanced for their age! Actually, her data are absolutely astonishing. Without going into too much detail, the children whom she investigated were given a reading test, (the NLS Assessment). In schools, one would expect 16% of children to reach the top band. Among the home educated children 94% of six year olds managed it. The figures are also extremely high for seven, eight, nine and ten year olds. In other words, rather than being delayed in their reading, according to Rothermel home educated children are fantastically ahead of those educated at school.

Clearly, both Thomas and Rothermel cannot be right about this. Home educated children cannot be both marvellously early readers and also remarkably late ones! I think that most home educators fall into the Thomas camp, believing that their children may learn to read late, but that it does not matter. This does not of course prevent them brandishing Rothermel's figures when debating with non home educators!

So what caused such a difference in findings? Well, to begin with Alan Thomas was already a very well established and experienced psychologist when he undertook his research. Paula Rothermel, on the other hand, was undertaking a thesis for her doctorate. When one looks closely at her work one finds that the literacy tests were not conducted under controlled conditions as they are in schools. She posted them out to parents, who then did them unobserved with their children. Hands up anybody who can imagine a mother leaning over little Johnny's shoulder saying irritably, "Come on, you do know that word! Look, it begins with C."

As far as can be gauged, Rothermel and Thomas carried out their work more or less at the same time, using precisely the same sort of subjects, found mostly via EO and other groups. Any difference in results is likely therefore to be caused by methodology. Because Paula Rothermel's work is the only research undertaken within the UK which supports the notion that the educational progress of home educated children equals or even exceeds that of those educated at school, I shall in the next few days focus on this and see what it might tell us.

American versus British home education

Every so often somebody in the world of home education becomes excited because some new piece of research shows that home educated children do better than those at school. The latest study is from America and it does indeed suggest that home educated children there are doing a good deal better than those at American schools. It was conducted by the Home School Legal Defence Association and surveyed over eleven thousand home educated children. What relevance has this to British home education? Well, absolutely none at all really. British and American home education are two completely different things. Let me explain.

The National Centre for Education Statistics in America carried out a huge survey a few years ago, looking at the motivation for home education. Almost 50% of parents gave as their main reason; "Can give child a better education at home". Compare this with Paula Rothermel's paper, The Third Way in Education, published in 2000. The main reasons that parents in Britain gave for home education were; "Having a close family relationship and being together" and also "Having the freedom and flexibility to do what we want, when we want".

See the difference? No mention of education as a reason for home educating. It does not bode well at all. In the NCES survey, another third of American parents gave religion as their main reason for home educating. These people tend to use highly structured and effective programmes such as Accelerated Christian Education with their children. Believe me, these methods get results. No nonsense there about "freedom and flexibility to do what we want"!

It should always be remembered when we flourish some new statistic from the USA about home education, that parents there keep their children away from school so that they can educate them, not so that they can have "a close family relationship and be together". No wonder they get better results educationally.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

More autonomous "education"......

I cited below a book published this year written by Deborah Durbin. Teach Yourself Home Education is written by an autonomously educating mother and presumably she knows what she is talking about. Here she explains how her children learn English, which is to say the spelling, grammar and punctuation of their native language. She talks, on page 69, about how her children might choose to write a letter to a friend and, in some mysterious way, while doing so, "they are learning how to punctuate and write a gramatically correct piece of work." It can't be anything to do with their mother, because she goes on to say, "I do not stand over them because I feel that if they want my help they will ask for it, so I am often at my desk writing".

These are truly extraordinary claims and I feel sure that there is Nobel Prize waiting for the person who can give a theoretical mechanism for this teaching technique. How do her children learn that a sentence must begin with a capital letter and end with a full stop? By what strange method does she convey the necessity for a sentence to have unity and contain a verb? We are not told. Simply that Mummy is sitting on the other side of the room and her children are learning, " how to punctuate and write a gramatically correct piece of work". I suppose that I did it the hard way, because I would get my daughter to draft the letter, then I would point out that she had forgotten the date or missed out the salutation and so on. I do not believe that any child could possibly guess that the traditional place for the date is in the upper right hand corner, beneath the address. Ms. Durbin says that she will help if asked, but without knowing anything of the matter, how will the children know what to ask? Suppose they don't care and are content to produce a sloppy, semi-literate and all but illegible piece of writing? Many children do this. How actually will the children learn the conventions of letter writing, let alone spelling and grammar, unless they are taught them? This is a regular conundrum, the answer to which is known only to Ms. Durbin.

I have been quoting Ross Mountney and Deborah Durbin on this, because I wanted to show what modern thinking is on the subject of autonomous education. John Holt is of course little better. Besides which his folksy style and homely anecdotes soon have all right thinking people reaching for the sick bag.

Does it matter whether or not children learn to write letters properly, following the same conventions as everybody else? Well it does if they wish to write to a potential employer, or their bank or some other place where there might be literate and educated people to read the letter. Few things give a worse impression of a job applicant than missing out "Dear Sir" or not signing the letter at the bottom. This is not some hopelessly abstract area of learning like the Hundred Years War or quadratic equations; it is a vital skill for day to day living. Why on Earth would one not teach it to a child?

Childhood autonomy; what are the limits?

For a number of online home educating communities, autonomous education seems to be far and away the most popular approach. Indeed, for some it seems almost an article of faith. I want to look today at the basis for this belief that our children are the best judges of what they should study and learn.

Looking at Ross Mountney's book "Learning without School" (Jessica Kingsley 2009), I find a definition with which many autonomous home educators would agree. On page 72 she says, "The children do activities which they have chosen, when they have chosen them." Similarly, in a recently published book in the "Teach Yourself" series, (Home Education, Hodder Headline 2009), author Deborah Durbin says of her own children, "They are given the freedom to make choices as to what subjects they would like to study and are under no pressure to study subjects they show no interest in", (Page 64).

The difficulty that I and many others have is with the whole concept of children being the best judges of what is good for them. From birth, we restrict the autonomy of our children. If a baby or toddler wishes to drink something like bleach from a brightly coloured bottle, we prevent them. This is because we, as adults, know better than them what is wholesome and good for them. If they want to play with a wasp, we stop them. This process continues throughout childhood. I am sure that even the most dedicated autonomous parent would not allow her child to live on sugar and coca cola. This is because, once again, we know better. We make them wash, clean their teeth, eat properly, go to bed at a reasonable hour, not wear the same clothes until they turn into stinking rags; in a hundred different ways each day we meddle with their lives and limit their autonomy. However when it comes to mental heath and development, rather than physical, the rules seem to change dramatically. The question is, why?

Since we assume that a child cannot be trusted to understand the effect of ultra violet rays, and their carcinogenic properties, we slap on sunscreen. Incidentally, I have noticed that autonomous educators are among the greatest worriers about this; their children are often dripping with the stuff even on an overcast April morning! However, if the children fail to realise the importance of being able to do mental arithmetic or compose a coherent letter, the rules change; the choice is now theirs. Avoiding skin cancer and being able to work out the change from a ten pound note are both important, but we allow the child to make the choice in one, but not the other case.

Why should we assume in other words, that children know, better than we do, what sort of knowledge and skills they are likely to need in later life? To take a basic example, it is very useful indeed to be able to work out areas when one is painting a room. It enables us to calculate how much paint we will need and also how much it will cost. How can a child of ten be expected to realise that learning to multiply length by breadth in order to find an area will be a vital skill which he is bound to need as an adult? The answer is, of course, that he cannot be expected to know this. Yet if we follow the advice of authors like Mountney and Durbin, quoted above, we would leave it entirely up to the child whether or not he even did any arithmetic at all!

So, my question is this. Some children, left to their own devices, might sit up until midnight or later, watching television and eating sweets. They would then go to bed without cleaning their teeth. This is an example of autonomy in practice, but not one which most parents would allow. Other children might live normal lives but have a marked aversion to a useful subject such as mathematics. According to many writers on the topic, this should be allowed and no pressure exerted on the child to acquire the rudiments of arthimetic. It should be left to him to investigate when he feels like it. If he never shows any interest, then so be it. Do most autonomously educating parents agree with people like Mountney and Durbin on this or do these authors hold extreme and unrepresentative views?

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

HE-UK and Education Otherwise Lists

I do hope that people realise that the reason that I no longer post on either of the above places is because they have both thrown me off for holding heterodox and unacceptable views? I should not like anybody to think that I had left because I could no longer be bothered to post there and felt more comfortable having my own place in cyberspace where I can rant! At least now, those who go onto these message boards can be reasonably sure that nobody will disagree with them about any fundamental and important questions, which must surely be a comfort.

Home educated children with special educational needs

Is the proportion of home educated children with special needs higher than in the school population? This idea has been put forward, but of course without knowing how many children are educated at home it is a bit hard to calculate and compare percentages! There is no doubt that a quick glance at the messages on both the HE-UK and Education Otherwise listings seems to indicate that practically every child mentioned has a special need of one sort or another. A closer look reveals something very interesting.

Almost none of these children have what most people would describe as a special need or disability. There do not appear to be quadraplegics, children with spina bifida or Down's Syndrome, the deaf or the blind, those with moderate to severe learning difficulties. Instead, they apparently suffer from a variety of problems which are usually alluded to by a few cryptic letters; ADHD,ME,ODD,OCD and so on. Since many of these mothers, for those on these message boards are almost invariably female, present as articulate, anxious and middle class, it is interesting to speculate about the reason for the sorts of problem which they claim their children are afflicted with.

It is a long standing joke among those with whom I work that middle class children are never illiterate. They "suffer" instead from dyslexia. Nor are they naughty and badly behaved; it is that they are displaying the symptoms of ADHD. Clumsy and ill co-ordinated middle class kid? Must be dyspraxia. And so on and so forth. In other words, there is a good chance that there is actually nothing much wrong with many of these children other than the usual childhood problems; namely that they are reluctant to learn, they drop and break things and don't do as they are told.

I have been thinking about this apropos of the numbers of children claimed to be known to children's social care. Some people have put the idea forward that many cases where the child is known to social services are simply because of some special need or other. Again, it would very helpful to know the figures involved and in particular the reasons for the referrals, which always seem to be missing from the published data. One thing is sure, you are unlikely in the extreme to get a social services referral just because your kid is clumsy or disobedient. If special needs referrals are skewing the figures then there must be a bit more to it than that.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Abuse of home educated children

Like most home educating parents, I was angered at the suggestion that our children are somehow at greater risk of abuse than those who attend school. And yet...... Consider this case;

Here is an example of abuse which would never have come to light had the child been home educated. It would have been easy to make sure that long sleeves were worn and that the child was kept at home until the injury had healed. You will observe that it was the teacher who noticed and reported this abuse. This is not uncommon in schools. It is a layer of protection which home educated children can lack, the casual daily oversight by an impartial adult other than the parent.

I think that the problem might be that most home educators who look at sites like this or visit the EO and HE-UK lists would no more abuse their children than fly to the moon. They say, quite correctly that their children are seen regularly by other adults and that they belong to various groups where a savage bite on a child's arm would soon be noticed. Of course, parents like this, those involved with other home educators, may in fact be a tiny minority. It is entirely possible that most home educated children do not get to see many other people and may indeed lead a somewhat isolated life. I do not know how many children regularly attend groups for HE kids run by EO and other organisations. Suppose we had a rough guess and said five thousand? Suppose we also have a rough guess and accept Badman's assertion that there could be eighty thousand home educated children in England. Those five thousand children belonging to HE groups would then be only one sixteenth of the total number of children being home educated in this country. In short, it would mean that those children happily attending groups were rare exceptions and not at all typical. Even if my estimates are wildly out here, say that forty thousand children belong to home educating groups, it would still mean that tens of thousands of home educated children could be cut off in varying degrees from the society around them.

There are quite a few groups of home educators who more or less avoid wider society. I am thinking now of Jehovah's Witnesses in my own county, Essex. There are quite a few of them. In other areas there are Plymouth Brethren who also home educate and also shun the world in general. They fear that their children will be contaminated by worldly influences if allowed to associate too much with other children who may not be Christian.

The problem is that many active home educators, particularly those involved with organisations such as Education Otherwise, HEAS, AHE and HE-UK, simply cannot imagine cutting themselves off from other home educators and allowing their children to become horribly isolated. They genuinely regard the existence of such families as a construct of government ministers or newspapers like the Daily Mail. However, these families do exist and may be far commoner than we realise. They could even form the majority of home educators; nobody knows.

It seems fairly clear that if there were in fact large numbers of home educated children living restricted lives in this way and having little contact with others, then if they were to suffer abuse, there would be less chance of it coming to light. I have never been a sociable man and certainly belonged to no home educating groups. If I had taken it in mind to abuse my daughter when she was younger, I have no doubt at all that I would have been in a better position to conceal the abuse than if I sent her to school. It is against this background that some of the recommendations of the Badman Review must be seen. One final point. As the numbers of home educators rise inexorably, so the chances that at least some of them will be abusing their children increase. If there were, say, only ten children being taught at home then the chances that one of them were being abused would be slender. When you reach forty, fifty or eighty thousand, then it becomes exceedingly likely that some of the children are victims of abuse. How to weed out these cases without causing a great deal of anger to the majority who are not abusers is not a simple problem.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Why do parents choose to home educate?

As far as I can make out, and I am very ready to be corrected on this, home educators can be divided broadly into two groups. Firstly, we have those who choose not to send their children to school at primary age and then send them to secondary school or college in order to take examinations. The second group consists of parents who are happy to send their children to school and then withdraw them later, often at secondary age for a variety of reasons. York Consulting did a survey of nine LAs and found that roughly twice as many children of secondary age were home educated, compared to primary age children. It seems to be all but unheard of for parents never to send their children to school at all at any age between five and sixteen. (Actually, I only know of two offhand; me and Fiona Nicholson of Education Otherwise. But I dare say there are others).

The fact that the majority of home educated children are withdrawn from secondary school is interesting. It seems that most home educating parents have nothing against school in principle. In other words, roughly two thirds of home educating parents are quite happy to send their children there until something goes wrong. We can perhaps term such parents reactive home educators. They do not really choose home education, it just seems the best solution to a problem. The other category, those who do not send their kids in the first place, could perhaps be called proactive home educators. They have made a definite decision to follow this course of action.

Parents deregister their children for many reasons, but bullying or some form of special educational need stand out as very common reasons. It is hard not to conclude that if someone could wave a magic wand and make the schools better, then the number of home educators would dwindle dramatically. Of course, this is all based upon the number of home educating parents known to LAs. There may quite possibly be a huge number entirely unknown to them. What is also intriguing is that if we look at individual school years, a definite pattern emerges. Hardly any children are home educated in Reception or Year One, but when the teenage years are reached, the number soar up. Why should this be? Is it simply coincidental that parents who have apparently been quite content for their children to go through the school system for nine or ten years, suddenly become enthusiastic home educators when their children are fourteen? Or is it that the children themselves start behaving like very awkward or troubled young people and the parents are persuaded that problems at school are the root cause? What is it at that sort of age that suddenly makes home education such a very attractive prospect for parents who have seemingly never thought of it before?

I do not put forward any sort of hypothesis here, it is just something which I have noticed and find puzzling. I would be grateful for any explanation.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Motivations for autonomous education

It is time to consider why parents choose autonomous education rather than more conventional methods. I do not doubt for a moment that the reasons usually put forward for this lifestyle are given honestly. However, being a very unpleasant and cynical man, I cannot help but look beyond people's own explanations for their actions. In particular, I always ask, of any human action at all; cui bono, who benefits?

In the case of autonomous education there are a number of short term benefits which parents tend not to mention. Firstly, of course, there is no fighting to get children and teenagers to sit down and do some piece of writing or mathematics against their will. Nor are there efforts to make them get up early in the morning, go to bed at a certain time or stop watching the television or sitting slumped for hours in front of a computer. The teenage years can be tricky and this must surely make them a good deal easier. Imagine, no fighting over homework or revision! No rows over the length of time spent on the internet instead of studying. This is a powerful short term incentive for not insisting on study and a structured lifestyle. Then again, it enables one to enjoy all the time spent with one's child. If, as I strongly suspect, most home educators are very fond of their children, it means that we can just hang out together and enjoy each others company. No need to break off that day at the park in order to go home and practice handwriting or sums. This is another benefit, especially when the child is younger. Best of all, whatever my child is doing is just as beneficial to his all round education as anything else. Bouncing on a trampoline, playing computer games, staring out of the window, spending hours on MSN; hey, it's all education!

I mentioned in my last post the subject of GCSEs. Organising and studying for these is an enormously time consuming and expensive business. Quite apart from the time and money, I can easily imagine that the intensive work involved could have the effect of increasing tension in a home with a teenager and souring relations between parent and child. This must be all the more likely when the child has been raised in the way of not doing such things against his or her inclinations.

I do not say that considerations such as those outlined above are the primary motivation for educating autonomously. However, I strongly suspect that they must influence any decision in that direction. A better relationship with one's child, less stress in the teenage years, a son or daughter who is more like a friend or companion. I would be curious to know how these factors have affected other parents when choosing an educational style.

Higher education for the home educated child

One of the most enduring myths among home educating parents is that there is no particular need for their children to take GCSEs. They can be taken later if the child wants and even if they are not, it's quite possible to get into college or university without them. After all, didn't some autonomously educated teenager get a place at Oxford without having a single GCSE?

The first thing to bear in mind is that teenagers without any GCSEs who get into university to study academic subjects are so fantastically rare that we always hear of the same two; Alex Dowty and Chris Ford. Look at any article about home education successes and these will be the two cases cited, as though they were somehow typical. They are not. Alex Dowty's father is a well known barrister who works for a firm of solicitors. It was because his son had spent years working in a solicitor's office and studying law in this way that he was offered a place at Oxford. As for Chris Ford, although it is quite true that he was autonomously educated, he had to take A levels at college in order to gain a place at university.

The problem is that many, perhaps most, colleges of further education are now very rigid about their entrance criteria for A level courses. If you want to study for A level mathematics, you must have a GCSE at B or above. The same applies to subjects such as physics and chemistry. Where teenagers do get college places without any GCSE's, they tend to be on courses such as performing arts, textile design, art and photography. One can sometimes get onto these courses by audition or presentation of a portfolio. I hasten to add that I do not regard such subjects as being in any way inferior to more academic ones. It is just that if you do not enter your child for GCSEs, it is as well to be aware that you are almost certainly limiting his options, should he later wish to pursue more academic further education such as A levels.

Of course it may well be argued that getting into college or university is not the be all and end all of education. I agree wholeheartedly with this view. Deciding against higher education is though a serious step. It is one which should be taken by the teenager himself, rather than by his parents on his behalf. If a child is educated in such a way that GCSEs are not taken, then in a sense that decision has been made already, but by the parent. A fourteen or fifteen year old is, after all, unable to organise and pay for a thousand pounds worth of examinations. This is something that only a mother or father can arrange.

Deciding not to arrange for a child to take GCSEs is a very serious step indeed. The consequences for the young person are profound and long lasting. It is certainly not a decision to be taken lightly;still less should it be the default setting for home educators.

Visits from the local authority; why should we have them?

Perhaps the most controversial recommendation of the Badman Review and certainly the one which has generated most anger, is Recommendation 7; that local authority officers should have right of entry to home educators' homes. After all, responsibility for our children's education remains with the parents, there are no plans to change that. Why should our LA be the final arbiter of whether the education which we are providing is suitable?

In order to see what is behind this idea, perhaps I could give a couple of examples known to me of the sort of dilemma faced by local authority officers working in this field. Case one concerns an eleven year old boy in an East London borough. He was deregistered from his primary school at the end of term in July and so did not attend secondary school. The local authority wrote asking for details of the education which he was receiving, but the letters were ignored. Eventually an Education Welfare Officer was sent to the home. It was discovered that the child's father was running a makeshift garment factory in a garage attached to thir home. The boy was being used to help out and also do the housework because the mother did not appear to live there.

Case two concerns a fourteen year old girl in a neighbouring borough. Her mother had mental health problems and was lonely during the day. Since the daughter did not like school anyway, she did a bit of research and then typed a letter for her mother to sign, deregistering the child from school. Then she printed out an Educational Philosophy from the HE-UK site and that was that. The child became, in effect, a nurse companion to her mother. An EWO visited and soon realised what was happening. Unfortunately, there was little that could be done, because both mother and daughter claimed to be autonomous educators, which explained the apparent lack of conventional academic work.

I give these examples to show how tricky it can be for the local authority to distinguish between genuinely home educating parents and those simply using it as a ruse for other purposes. Without a home visit, the eleven year old boy would still be working in an illegal and dangerous factory. I have no idea and neither does anybody else, whether such cases are common or rare. Most estates that I visit contain at least one disaffected teenager who is being "home educated". That is why recommendations 3 and 14 are concerned with counting the number of home educated children and finding out why their parents took this step.

I cannot see how, without a home visit, it would be possible to distinguish between a genuine home educator who declines a home visit and sends in a modified version of an Educational Philosophy from HE-UK and a parent who decides to deregister the child for a reason other than education. Without visiting, both cases would appear pretty much identical.

Is Graham Badman my friend/colleague/brother/secret identity?

I thought that I had better clear up the mad idea which seems to be circulating on the internet that I have some sort of connection with Graham Badman. In the general way of things I try and ignore this sort of thing, but I have now received two emails from home educated children asking me to intercede with Graham Badman. The one I received yesterday was from the email account of somebody called Carol Williams in Alton, Hampshire. Her son has been told that Graham Badman is my friend and that I used to work for him! This young boy's message enclosed attachments giving his real name and address and it is this dangerous proceeding which tells me that it is time to call a halt to this. Imagine encouraging your child to send his name and address to some crank on the internet whom you have never met and know nothing about! I would be worried if other parents started doing this.

The only connection I have ever had with Graham Badman is that my daughter and I contacted him during the review and asked for our views to be heard. We spoke for half an hour on April 28th this year, since when I have had no more to do with him. After my articles were published in the TES and Independent, some fool googled my name and Graham Badman's and discovered that a Simon Webb used to work in Kent at the same time as Graham Badman. Thus was the rumour born that we had some sort of connection. Others have then taken this and tried to spread it around in order to smear me. Yesterday I posted for a couple of hours a spoof bio of Ali Edgley. I did this because I was very irritated with her as she had written to a couple of newspapers stating as a fact that I was a friend of Graham Badman. Perhaps we could just stop this foolishness now?

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Do we need new laws?

Recommendation 15 of the Badman Review sounds a little strange unless you know the background. This is unfortunate, because it is quite important. It says, "That the DCSF take such action as necessary to prevent schools or local authorities advising parents to consider home education to prevent permanent exclusion or using such a mechanism to deal with educational or behavioral issues." What can it mean? Schools and local authorities advising parents to home educate? I thought that they had set their minds like flint against the idea of home education and were trying to put a stop to it. Why on Earth should the DCSF have to take action to prevent LAs from advising parents to home educate?

Ten years ago, Firfield School in Newcastle had a lot of trouble with truancy and exclusions. Too much of this sort of thing makes a school look really lousy and they were desperate to reduce both truancy and exclusion. Somebody hit upon the luminous idea of preparing letters for parents stating that they were deregistering their children in order to home educate them. All the parents had to do was sign on the dotted line. A brief account of this disgraceful affair may be seen here;

Other schools had been doing this for a while, but none so flagrantly as Firfield. Today, many schools still do it, but in a rather more cautious way. Nothing is committed to paper and the Head usually has a quiet chat with parents alone. In effect he says to the mother, "Look Mrs. Smith, we are on the point of excluding Jimmy and then it will be a terrible black mark against him on his educational record. Is that what you want?" Or perhaps he says, "I'm sorry, Mrs. Jones but the local authority have ordered me to crack down on truancy. As you know, your son is hardly ever here. I'm afraid that we are going to prosecute you and have you sent to prison. Oh, and of course your son will be taken into care." Once he has put the frighteners on the parent in this way he casually mentions that there is a way out of this. He then explains how to deregister a child from the school in order to home educate.

Because no records are kept of why parents withdraw children from school, we don't know how many children have been pulled out of school like this. This is, of course the purpose of Recommendation 3. These parents have no intention of home educating, even were they to be capable of it. Their kids just carry on hanging round the streets as before and everybody is happy. Except for the children who miss out on an education...... It is very hard indeed to see how this problem can be tackled without new legislation. I would be keen to hear what methods others would use to deal with this which would not inevitably involve some inconvenience to genuine home educators.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Real Books- learning to read autonomously

When discussing the idea of children learning to read autonomously, it is instructive to examine the Whole Language or Real Books method. For twenty years or so, this was the most favoured way of teaching reading, both in this country and the United States. Essentially, what happened was this. Many well educated parents noticed that their children seemed to learn to read without any formal instruction. Their homes were full of books, they read to their children regularly, pointed out shop names, answered questions about the meanings of words and so on. The children apparently absorbed the ability to read by "osmosis". How then, thought some academics, would it be if we scrapped phonics and any systematic instruction at all. Instead of reading schemes we will just leave lots of real books in the classrooms and the children there will pick up reading just as our children have done. There was a political dimension to this, particularly in this country. Most reading schemes such as Peter and Jane feature white, middle class children from conventional backgrounds with both mothers and fathers. This does not reflect our modern diverse society!

The results of this project were pretty disasterous. Here is a piece from the TES from about fifteen years ago; What worked in very special conditions, i.e. the homes of very well educated people who knew all about education and the acquisition of literacy, did not tranfer easily to mass instruction in the classroom. This is why the whole scheme was chucked out and replaced with more effective methods like synthetic phonics.

I would argue that those who promoted these ideas are guilty of the worst kind of trahison de clercs. They devalued the very notion of teaching children to read and left many people with the vague idea that it was neither necessary nor desirable to provide any instruction in this vital skill. So while I do not doubt that it is perfectly possible for children to learn to read informally in very special and restricted circumstances, I do not think it responsible to encourage this as a general practice. This is particularly so now that home education in this country is growing into a mass movement. Inevitably, there will be a lot of parents who do not understand the circumstances in which children can acquire literacy in an informal setting. For every dedicated parent who fills the house with reading matter and watches her child carefully for chances to encourage reading, there will be another who just leaves her child to get on with it. I have been in the past accused of failing to understand the difference between autonomous learning and some species of laissez-faire parenting where the child is just left to her own devices. This is a preposterous suggestion. Just because I am aware of the difference though, does not mean that all the tens of thousands of parents who currently do not send their children to school similarly understand such a distinction.

The National Curriculum

The National Curriculum is a particular bugbear of the autonomous home educators. Again and again one sees them expressing the fear that it will be "imposed" upon them, thus ending their freedom to home educate. Mind you, more than a few of them seem to be a little vague about what the National Curriculum actually is. For many, the expression seems to be synonomous with conventional schoolwork; they use the term simply to signify structured academic work.

I am not sure where the rumour started that Graham Badman was seeking to impose the National Curriculum on home educators. It was certainly rife during the review. It never apparently occurred to anybody to adopt the straightforward course of asking him outright whether there was any truth in the notion that this was his ultimate aim. When I did ask him, he seemed genuinely amazed at the idea. As he pointed out, just getting schools to abide by the enormously complex and cumbersome provisions of the National Curriculum is a nightmare. The thought that anybody would try and do this with tens of thousands of eccentric and often awkward home educators seemed to bemuse him! That he was being honest about this is suggested by the final recommendations made in his report to the Secretary of State. Recommendation 2 limits itself to a bit of waffle to the effect that the DCSF should review the definition of a "suitable" education. This should not be "overly prescriptive", which seems at once to rule out the National Curriculum; possibly the most prescriptive body of instructions ever produced in human history!

While it is true that I am not a huge fan of the National Curriculum, at least not in its current, unwieldy form, it is worth asking why the thing was introduced in the first place. At one time, any school could teach precisely as it saw fit. This meant of course that some schools taught pupils a lot of skills and knowledge which stood them in good stead once they left. Others taught very poorly and the pupils left school fit only to be street sweepers or millgirls. This was not fair. The idea of a National Curriculum was to create a level playing field, so that all children would acquire a good grasp of literacy and mathematics, science and history and that they would all leave school with an equal grasp of these things. This was a noble aspiration, but like so many grand schemes it became bogged down in the pettifogging details of precisely what should be taught and when. This does not mean that it is not a good aim, just that it needs to be radically revised.

Although for a home educator to teach every aspect of the National Curriculum would be impossibly demanding, I can't see any reason that some of its targets should not be used as a very rough framework for what children should be able to achieve and know at various stages of their development.

My email address

I must apologise to those who wanted my email address. I could see it on the Navbar, but did not know that others could not. For those who wish to contact me, it is: I really don't know why some people have seemingly been unable to leave comments here. It should be possible, perhaps you need to sign up or something of the sort? After all, at least one angry autonomous educator has managed to post offensive comments! Apropos of which, might I just ask anybody who wishes to either email me or leave a comment if it would be possible to discuss my ideas rather than my personality? I say this because a lot of the comments made on the comments section on my newspaper articles seem to be more concerned with where I work and my supposed lack of integrity and intelligence, rather than debating the topic of autonomous education per se.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Learning to read "late" - does it matter?

Many autonomously educated children are famously late in learning to read. The parents of such children laughingly admit that their children of eleven, twelve or thirteen are unable to read. It is suggested that when they do start reading, they quickly catch up with those who learned at a younger age. It may well be the case that functional literacy can be acquired fairly swiftly in the teenage years. The same thing can happen with illiterate adults who are taught to read. The problem is that while such people may quickly learn enough of the reading process to decode the label on a tin of beans or the instructions on a computer game, they seldom take to reading for pleasure. This is purely anecdotal and I would be glad to hear of any properly conducted research which tends to disprove this hypothesis.

My own belief is that just as there is a critical period when a child learning to talk can pick up two languages at once and be fluent in both, so too is there a critical period for the acquisition of literacy. When a child learns to read very young, reading becomes a kind of "second language". Those who learn it after this critical period will never be able to use it as fluently. There is a huge difference between children who read for enjoyment and those who only read because they are made to do so at school. I have an idea that it may be a little like those three dimensional pictures which are apparently a random collection of dots. Once you have the knack, you can quickly turn these dots into a vivid picture which stands out from the page. Fluent readers, those who read for fun, perform I think a similar trick. They look at the words and yet somehow beyond them. Those who read a lot of novels often seem to see through the page into the world created by the author. Halting readers and also, I suspect, those who do not learn to read until puberty, see only the forest of print which they must build laboriously into words and sentences.

Mike Fortune-Wood, a well known advocate of autonomous education once said something very revealing, which I think casts a little light on how a lot of autonomous educators see reading. He asked in apparent amazement, "Why would a child of six need to read?" The thought that a child of six might actually enjoy the act of reading a book had plainly never occurred to him. Perhaps when autonomously educating parents talk about "reading" they are more likely to mean functional literacy rather than the sort of pleasurable activity that many of us mean by the word.

More Newspaper Articles

Here are a couple more pieces of mine in a vaguely educational vein.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

The Graham Badman Review

Perhaps the single most important topic at the moment for autonomous home educators is Graham Badman's review of home education which was published in June 2009. Everything about this slim booklet seems to be wrong from their point of view and so I thought it worthwhile to point out a few of the ideas contained in it which might be good for home educators in general. So here are three good things about the Badman Review.

1. The requirement to give three weeks notice before withdrawing a child from school.

On the face of it, this does seem a bit much. Why can't the present system continue, whereby you just pull out your child as soon as you want? The problem here is that withdrawing a child from school is almost always in response to some problem which a parent or child is having with the school. In other words, most people don't choose to become home educators; they are forced into adopting this course as a second best to school. After all, this where most home educators send their child at first. Presumably most of them have no objection to school as such. Their complaint is typically that the school will not address the problems which their children are having, for example bullying, special needs and so on. If the school were to be given a definite deadline to fix these problems, and three weeks seems a reasonable length of time, then it might focus their minds a little. This is especially so since schools under the new system would see pupils being deregistered like this as a black mark against them, rather like truancies or exclusions. I'm guessing that a lot of them will suddenly feel able to solve a lot of these difficulties, instead of just brushing parents off and saying "Good riddance!" when they withdraw their children.

2. Local Authorities helping parents to plan the education for their children

An awful lot of parents, judging by the messages on Education Otherwise and HE-UK mailing lists, withdraw their children from school and then have no idea how to go about things. The classic autonomous educating response is to suggest a "de-schooling" period where nothing at all is done. The standard recommendation is for one months "de-schooling" for every year spent at school. This means in practice that it is seriously suggested that a fourteen year old child taken out of school as he is about to begin intensive work for GCSEs should spend the next year or so doing nothing at all and simply lounging around. I'm sure that Local Authorities would be able to offer better advice than this!

3. Local Authorities paying for examinations and opening their facilities up to home educators.

I need only remark that my own daughter took eight IGCSEs and each cost £120. Considering the amount of Council Tax I pay, this is iniquitous! I can't see how anybody could object to this recommendation.

Youtube Clip

This is a short clip from the Wright Stuff, in 2007. If you would like to see Simone and me in action,(and who wouldn't?), this is your chance. My daughter and I went on there to talk about home education. Also on the programme were Ann Newstead's husband and a woman called Myra Robinson from some LEA in the North of England. It was curious, because both my daughter and I found Myra Robinson to be an interesting, sensible and amusing person. We agreed with most of what she said. Ann Newstead's husband, on the other hand, gave the impression of being a humourless devil. I have noticed generally that autonomous educators seem to take the whole business of home education very seriously. I have always found it to be a bit of a laugh, even when we have crossed swords with our LEA, but the AE people seem to be angry and tense a lot of the time.

Newspaper Articles.

Here are links to two articles which I wrote for the Independent and Times Educational Supplement recently. (July 2009)

Why Heretic?

First, a little background. I never once thought of sending my daughter to school and so educated her myself until she was fifteen. This was a very enjoyable process for both of us and after taking a number of IGCSEs she enrolled at college to take A Levels. One of the things that struck me over the years was that the home educating "community" seems to be dominated, at least in Britain, by so-called autonomous educators. Many of these people seem to be almost fanatical in their devotion to this style of education. To an outsider, they can almost appear like some peculiar cult, particularly since a lot of ideas to which they subscribe appear more than a little odd to outsiders. They also grow angry very quickly if anybody questions, let alone challenges, their beliefs. For this reason I decided to call myself a "heretic", in the sense that my ideas are utterly beyond the pale for these people and opposed to all that they hold dear. (I also have a suspicion that some of them would cheerfully watch me being burnt at the stake in the style of a real heretic!).