Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Home education - the vital need for a curriculum

It is sometimes suggested that children at school are encouraged to take ten or more GCSEs and that this becomes an end in itself, often filling their heads with a lot of useless information that they will never need after leaving school. Well, GCSEs are of course very useful, particularly if you wish to gain a place at college or university, but there is a far more important reason for undertaking the systematic instruction of children in the rudiments of history, geography, science and so on. This is because without the possession of a body of knowledge, much of the world will be incomprehensible. To some extent, it is irrelevant whether or not the acquisition of this knowledge leads to formal qualifications; it is vitally necessary for its own sake. I wish today to focus upon one subject, history, although most of what I say would be equally applicable to any other part of a well rounded curriculum.

Let us begin by considering just one current news item, the Lisbon treaty and Ireland's referendum on it. In order to make any sense of this, it is at the very least necessary to know that the Irish Republic was once part of this country. It is also necessary to be aware of the fact that France has been the main driving force behind the creation of the European Union. To know what is happening in Europe and why we and the Irish view things a little differently, you really have to know something of the history of Franco-British relations. You need to know about the two World Wars, but also about the Napoleonic Wars, the Hundred Years War and Agincourt and also of course, the Norman Conquest. Without this basic knowledge, nobody could expect fully to understand our ambivalent attitude to France. Similar knowledge is needed to make sense of our relations with Germany.

Most of the historical knowledge mentioned above is of the sort which any educated person will take more or less for granted. Of course, a young person or child might pick up such information in the course of desultory reading and browsing the internet, but this is rather a large gamble to take on such an important matter. Suppose that he does not pick up this knowledge of his own accord? Will he in later life be able to take an intelligent interest in foreign affairs? Will he be fit to hold an opinion on the EU? What actually is the autonomously educating parent's approach to this subject? Is learning about the Hundred Years War and the battle of Waterloo one of those things that must be left to the child's choice? Deborah Durbin, author of "Teach Yourself Home Education", which is incidentally quite the worst book on the subject of home education which I have ever seen in my life, talks about history in her book. She says, "History lessons can be covered by exploring your family tree". It would be hard to imagine a more parochial attitude! How studying my family tree would help anybody to make sense of the Lisbon Treaty is a complete mystery to me. The Good Lord alone knows if this is a standard approach for autonomous educators to such a crucial subject.

Let me give another example. To understand why Russia is manoeuvring and intriguing in the Black Sea, one must be aware of their historic quest for warm water ports. Without knowledge of the Crimean War and the significance of the Dardanelles, news that Russia is exerting pressure on Georgia will be meaningless. Basic geopolitical facts such as these are crucial to anybody's understanding of the modern world. Again, why leave a child to stumble across such important information by sheer chance? What could possibly be the rationale for this perverse course of action? A child could not be expected to guess that in order to understand Russian motives in the modern world, he will need to know about the Crimean War. We as adults know it though and it is up to us to transmit this useful knowledge to our children.

I am aware that many home educating parents have a profound antipathy towards the National Curriculum, an antipathy which I fully share. Indeed, my dissatisfaction with the scope and depth of the National Curriculum was a major factor in my decision to teach my own daughter. Dissatisfaction with one curriculum did not however make me think that there should be no curriculum at all! It simply meant that I should have to devise a better curriculum. Without studying a coherent and well planned curriculum in history, geography, science, English and mathematics, our children will struggle to understand the world around them. It is out duty and responsibility to see that they are equipped with the background knowledge which will enable them to participate as active citizens in the modern, industrial society in which they are growing up.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Look out, it's the truancy patrol!

Section 16 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 gave the police the power to remove truants from a public place and return them to school or take them to another safe place. The usual method of accomplishing this end is by working with the Education Welfare Service of the local authority to mount what has become known as a Truancy Patrol. The mode of operation is for Education Welfare Officers to stake out, say, a shopping centre in the company of uniformed police officers. Not surprisingly, home educated children sometimes get caught up in the net.

There are a number of things to bear in mind about Truancy Patrols, because they have at times been a bit of a nuisance for some home educators. The first point to remember is that home educated children are specifically excluded from their remit. They are concerned only with pupils registered at a school. As soon as it is established that a child is not at school, then the interest of the Truancy Patrol should end. Needless to say, this is not always the case. Children on their own may well be taken home in order that their parents may confirm that they are in fact home educated. Even if they are with their parents, the EWOs will try to take names and addresses in order to see if the local authority is aware of the family. Neither the EWO nor the police officer have any right to be given the address of those stopped under this act. Nor do the police have the right to detain anybody. They may however remove children from a public place if they believe them to be registered pupils at a school.

When they first began, some of the truancy patrols had an alarming habit of routinely exceeding their powers. It was not at all unknown for EWOs and even police officers to give the impression that they had a perfect right to take names and addresses of home educated children, in order to check if they were known to the LEA. This is actually how my daughter and I came to the notice of Essex LEA. We had not been hiding, but nor had we bothered to notify the LEA of our existence when we moved to Essex. Although we made it plain to the truancy patrol that they were not entitled to demand our address, we gave it anyway because I could think of no particular reason not to do so.

It is important to remember that, at least for now, there is no need at all to give any personal information to either the EWO or the police officer in a truancy patrol. There is less anxiety about this than there was when the schemes first began to operate, but occasionally parents still express fear that because they are not registered with their local authority, they will get into trouble if they encounter a truancy patrol. It is not true. All that is necessary is to inform them politely that your child is not a registered pupil at a school and that you and your child are therefore beyond the scope of that particular law. There may well be some huffing and puffing and pursed lips, but the bottom line is that there is absolutely no power that can prevent you from simply walking off and declining to answer any further questions.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Do the recommendations of the Badman Report amount to a plan of mass screening for child abuse?

The above thesis has been advanced several times by Sharon, a regular poster to this Blog. She is concerned that if local authority officers visit every home educating family, carrying out so-called "Safe and Well" checks, then there will be many false positives. That is to say that evidence of abuse or neglect will be spotted where none exists. It is a bit like screening for cancer of the cervix. Some women will be told that they have pre-cancerous changes when they don't. The more checks one conducts, the more of these false positives there will be. In essence, Sharon appears to be worried that if lots of checks are carried out on home educators, then lots of parents will be falsely accused of abuse or neglect.

Let us look first at how Health Visitors and schools carry out their duties in this respect. After the birth of baby, Health Visitors come round to see if they can offer help and advice. While they are in the home, they cast an eye round for any warning signs. These can be vague, perhaps there are dirty and unkempt children around, the home might be so filthy that it is a health hazard, the mother might present as an alcoholic or drug user or bruises and contusions might be noticed on a child. In such a case, she will report her concerns to a superior and the result might be extra attention to that family. Precisely the same thing happens at schools. Last year there was a good example of this when a teacher spotted a bite mark on a child's arm and reported it to social services. The mother was subsequently arrested. This sort of informal surveillance is, if you like, a first layer of protection for children.

The above protection is sometimes lacking for children educated at home. In other words, it might be possible for a child to be filthy and unkempt and this fact will not be observed by a professional. A home educating mother could bite her child's arm and then make sure that nobody saw her son's bare arm until the injury had faded. This is not possible when a child is at school. The worry is that a small number of children could be at risk in this way. This is not really a screening programme as such, more an attempt to extend the protection enjoyed by schooled children to those who are taught at home.

One thing we are able to state confidently about this scheme is that some children who are at risk will not be spotted and that other children who are not at risk will be labelled incorrectly to be in danger of harm or neglect. This is inevitable. No system will save every child, just as none will avoid false accusations against some innocent parents. This has happened in the past, is happening now and will happen in the future. Thus, we try to balance these two points. On the one hand we hope that no child at risk of harm will escape notice and on the other, we hope that innocent parents shall not be wrongly accused. So far, I do not think I have said anything at all controversial; I think that we all agree on the nature of the problem.

The government's evident intention is that officers from the local authority shall visit home educators every year or so and cast a benevolent eye over their children. The object of this exercise will of course be to offer help and support to those who appear to need it. Sometimes this might be done by a CAF; perhaps social services will become involved. The sole and direct purpose of this activity is to protect children and help their parents. It is really not part of a plot to force home educated children back into school!

What harm might result from a false positive? Most probably, none at all. The worst case scenario might entail somebody from social services visiting the home as a result of some observation reported by an EWO. This is no disaster. In the first place, most such visits fizzle out and end up with a report stating that there is nothing to worry about. Sometimes, parents are glad of the chance to talk and the social worker is able to make referrals and arrange other services for the family. Unless there is genuinely something wrong, then matters are usually resolved amicably. I am of course aware that for many middle class parents, the prospect of a social worker turning up at their house is the ultimate nightmare and inevitable precursor to the children being taken into care. Many parents though, actually welcome social services involvement as a way to gain access to other services. Sometimes, the very fact that social services are hovering around can in itself be protection for a vulnerable child. It makes the parents think hard about their lifestyle and how they are behaving.

When we set the possibility that a child might end up being neglected, abused or murdered against the possibility that a certain number of people will be inconvenienced and very possibly subjected to annoying and intrusive questions, then we have a very difficult balancing act to perform. In a sense, we will never get it completely right because as I said earlier, some children will always fall through the net, while others will be incorrectly diagnosed as being at risk. It is not a perfect world.

I do not personally view the recommendations contained in the Badman Report as being a blueprint for an exercise in mass screening. Perhaps this is mere semantics. If it is mass screening, then it looks to me as though it will be a very mild and fairly low key operation, unlikely to cause much harm, but with the potential to do a lot of good. We should be welcoming this move, not sounding the alarm bells.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

The reactionaries

There has always been a strong tradition in this country of opposing new laws, or indeed any change at all in the status quo, as being dangerous and unnecessary. Whether it was the Great Reform Act of 1832, the abolition of the Corn Laws, free public education for the working classes or the enfranchisement of women, there have always been those who have viewed the new law as a risky experiment, liable to strike at traditional English values. I have been prompted to reflect upon this by threads currently running on the HE-UK and EO lists. Under the heading of Government Intrusion into Family Life, a succession of posters are expressing concern about the regulation of childminding. Almost unbelievably, the consensus on those lists seems to be in favour of an increase in unregulated childminding! Like me, many of those writing about this see parallels with the law on home education, although our conclusions are probably different.

Unregulated childminding has for many years been a popular way for women to make a little extra money. Thirty or forty years ago, when childminding was all but completely unregulated, it was possible to turn one's home into a battery farm full of babies and toddlers. It was in those days not uncommon to see a house containing six or seven small children. Times change and that sort of thing does not really go on any more. Thanks to a series of laws, unregulated childminding is now a far more hole and corner affair. Instead of providing a steady and reliable income, it is often used these days as part of a series of little earners, alongside clothing catalogue scams, cash in hand cleaning jobs and bar work. Usually, it is limited to one or at the most two children, rather than six or seven. This is a good thing and it is a direct result of the tightening up of the law. Women do not wish to draw attention to childminding unless they are registered and so are a bit more discrete about it.

None of these various laws were ever meant to affect how families look after their children, they were instead brought in to protect some of the most vulnerable members of the community, i.e. babies and toddlers, from exploitation. I find it astonishing that anybody could possibly think such laws a bad thing. Similarly, registered childminders are now obliged to follow the Early Years Foundation Scheme, the so-called "Nappy Curriculum", not because the government is determined to regulate childhood out of existence, but because a lot of childminders have historically been in the habit of plonking their charges down in front of the television and leaving them alone to watch cartoons all day. This is a bad thing for babies and toddlers.

Some of the people posting on HE-UK and EO are equating the regulations around childminding with the intention to introduce new laws to keep an eye on home education. In both cases, the government is concerned about children and trying to look after their interests. There will always be opposition to anything new, particularly new laws. When compulsory education was introduced in the late 19th Century, many parents were outraged. It was said to be striking at the heart of family life and an unwarranted interference in the private affairs of citizens. Plus ca change...... Perhaps it is time for those who are in favour of unregulated childminding and against the monitoring of home education, to ask themselves what they truly imagine the government's motives to be. Do they really imagine that this is all part of a sinister, wide ranging plot to undermine family life? Or is possible that a government composed of fallible men and women are struggling to pass imperfect laws, some of which will be misused, with the honest aim of improving the lot of the nation's children?

A small number of cases......

If the ability of parents in this country to educate their own children were to be under threat, then nobody would be more concerned than the present writer. Fortunately, no such threat is apparent, at least at the moment. What has happened over the last few years, as home education has become increasingly popular, is that it has grown clear that a small number of parents are using the pretext of home education as a cover for other things. Just what those "other things" are is a matter of lively debate. I believe them to be, for example, neglecting the education of a child, sometimes in order to avoid prosecution for truancy; some think that these "other things" include physical and sexual abuse. What nobody disputes, nor have ever disputed, is that such cases are a small number. Small, but perhaps significant enough to make it necessary to take some sort of action. The aim of any new action is not and never has been home educating parents per se. There is a good deal of evidence to support this thesis.

Here is Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College leaders, speaking about home education shortly after the Graham Badman review was launched, "However, there have been concerns about a small number of cases where this option has been exercised to the detriment of the child.". He went on to defend the right of parents to educate their children. His views were echoed by others during and after the review. On the day that Graham Badman's report was published on June 11th this year, Ed Balls said, "The review also found evidence that there are a small number of cases where home educated children have suffered harm because safeguarding concerns were not picked up, or not treated with sufficient urgency, particularly where parents were uncooperative or obstructed local authority investigations."

All along, everybody concerned in the review of elective home education conducted by Graham Badman has been at pains to emphasise that they are not against home eduction, but simply want the powers to cope with a small number of cases where the right to home educate is being abused. Here is Baroness Morgan, answering a written question about any new powers which local authorities may acquire, on June 29th, "We do not expect them to place any significant additional burdens on local authorities as most already monitor home education, and our proposals will provide additional powers that will assist local authorities in dealing more efficiently with the small number of cases where home education does not come up to scratch." Once again, a small number of cases. And finally, here is Graham Badman himself writing on September 16th., "a small but significant
proportion of home educated children are receiving no, or an inadequate,

There can be little doubt that any new law will be directed not at home educators in general, but at those who are using home education as a cover or excuse. Nobody has any idea what percentage of supposedly home educating parents this is likely to affect, not least because nobody knows to within a few score of thousands how many parents in this country are educating their children. Of course, any new regulation will cause irritation and inconvenience to a certain number of genuine home educators, although for most there will be no discernible difference. This inconvenience might however be a price worth paying if it rescues even a small number of children from neglect and possible danger.

Friday, 25 September 2009

The problem with home educators......

The problem with home educators is the same problem that hippies and skinheads used to have some years ago. It is a problem that Goths, Jehovah's Witnesses, home educators and a lot of other tiny minority groups who refuse to conform to the mores of the society in which they live, still have. These types all seem really weird to outsiders and often a mythology grows up about them in those who don't usually know any personally. For instance hippies were all regarded as promiscuous drug addicts, skinheads beat up gays and Pakistanis, that sort of thing. With home educators, the idea is that their children are at greatly increased risk of physical and sexual abuse, forced marriage and possibly even murder. This is one part of the problem.

The second part of the problem is that like all those who are used to living a peculiar and atypical lifestyle, home educators have forgotten just how they appear to others; that is to say as a bunch of freaks and oddballs. That they should be unaware of this is perfectly understandable from the perspective of the home educating parent. After all, what are they doing that is strange? Just looking after their children and trying to help them to learn. I mean that's what most people do until their children are five, but carry on with it after that age and people give you some pretty odd looks! Also of course, many home educators spend a lot of time chatting on the internet to other home educators, their friends are often home educators and their family and neighbours are often too polite to mention how weird it all looks to normal citizens.

The problem really becomes apparent only when something like the Badman report crops up. Most people, both parents of schoolchildren and others, find it quite reasonable that home educators should be checked regularly by the local authority. This is partly because they seem to be a pretty strange bunch and it sounds like a good idea that we should be seeing how their children are, but also because the safety and welfare of children is very dear to the heart of the man in the street. Anything which makes children safer must, almost by definition, be a good thing.

The perspective on such proposals from some home educators could hardly be more different. Teaching one's children at home is, for them, the most natural thing in the world. How dare anybody suggest that their children are not safe at home! They feel picked on and victimised. This is of course exactly how Goth teenagers feel and, for that matter, other fringe groups like naturists .

Here is the heart of the problem. If we deliberately set ourselves apart from the rest of society by our behaviour or personal appearance, then we can hardly be surprised if society and its more conventional members view us askance and mistrust our motives. In a sense, we can be said to have brought the problem upon ourselves. Readers might remember a year or two ago, the fellow who decided that he had a perfectly legal right to walk from one end of the country to the other stark naked. I have no idea at all of the legal situation, but I do know that he was regularly arrested and treated by the general public as a wandering madman. He had a choice. Either he could put his trousers on and walk from Lands End to John O' Groats peaceably and without a fuss, or he could do it naked and be stopped and bothered by the police at every touch and turn. One or the other, but not both. Home educators are in a sense in a similar condition.

Those who have chosen not to send their children to school may or may not have good reasons for what they are doing. Most people, in fact society as a whole, find the whole thing a bit fishy and probably somewhat suspicious. These attitudes are something which we must expect as a result of our choice. Some of the recommendations of the Badman Report perhaps stem from this point of view. On the other hand, we could just send our kids to school like everybody else and then there would be no problem and everyone will think that we are normal. What we cannot do is adopt a course of action which over 99% of the population regard as utterly bizarre and then affect shock and disbelief if we are treated as crackpots and weirdos!

Strangers Talking to Our Children

Much has been made of strangers talking to our children, and the damage it would possibly do.

However, the problem in my mind, is not really one of speaking to strangers, but one of intent and pre-conceived ideas. For example, I had a house full of policemen yesterday because I'm concerned about my elderly neighbour whose post is mounting up and who I haven't seen for days. I didn't expect them to come in (I hadn't actually thought about it) and the house was a mess with fimo on the floor mid project, lego in another corner, mid project, my son on the laptop doing maths in his pj's and messy hair, my daughter had just finished her flute practise, so the music stand was out with music everywhere, plus the general chaos of the house because I hadn't got around to tidying yet.

I asked the police officers to excuse the mess as we're a very busy household. They came in, and eventually commented on "oh, do you teach the children at home?", and I replied that I did. Then one said "all the time?". Which I thought was a very funny question. And that led onto the discussion of homed ed, which the police officer didn't know was legal. (Here we go again right!) She asked about socialisation, so I handed her over to my daughter to fill her in while I went and sorted my son out on the pc.

Eventually my son piped up, "enough about us, what about Pat next door!" Now, both children had no problem speaking to strangers. One child is gregarious, one child is more reserved. My son didn't say much, mainly because he was busy and had better things to do, and thought that the police officers should deal with the more pressing matter at hand than waste their time talking to us.

I had no problem letting them into my home, although I confess that I'd hate to let an LA officer come in the way the house was at that moment in time, even though that has no bearing on my educational provision, nor on their attainment. In fact, it's precisely because they had been busy all morning on 'educational' activities that caused the mess! (My daughter hastily tidied it all up when the policemen were in the back garden looking for a way into the neighbour's house.)

But, the police had no agenda with regard to home ed. They didn't come to judge me. (Although they may have made some judgments in their minds, but they didn't say, and they appeared to be favourable.)

However, had I appeared nervous and worried that they were in my house, or refused to let them in, this may have set off alarm bells for them. Had the children appeared nervous and worried, instead of naturally interested in what they were doing and why, I think it would have looked strange. Children normally are fairly chatty and interested, at least after initial shyness. Besides, I thought home educated children were supposed to be far better socialised and able to deal with a wide variety of people and age ranges. That's what we're always told.

So I think most children (although there are exceptions) would cope very well with a local officer visiting, IF they had any real idea about the diversity of approaches available to a home educator.

HOWEVER, the problem is the pre-conceived ideas about what education should look like and complete lack of training in different educational models and their efficiency. Many families HAVE been harmed by ill-informed and school biased local education officers and until these officers have been fully trained and they understand that we are not all doing 'school at home', I'd be a bit reluctant to meet with them to be honest. I think I'd spend most of the meeting asking them questions about what they know about home ed and verifying their credentials before I would be telling them anything about my provision.

And besides, given that we are given no money to home educate, what exactly are they trying to assess? Against what criteria? Are we told what this criteria is? What if we disagree with the criteria? Where is the money to help us attain this criteria as it seems a bit off to expect us to provide anything to their expectations without resources.

The question is far deeper than letting our children meet strangers or not, but rather, what is the intent of that stranger, and is it safe for the protection of our children, to do so.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

How many parents are opposed to Graham Badman's recommendations?

On the face of it, this seems an absurd question. We all know that every home educator in the country rejects Badman and all his works, with the exception of one or two idiots and lunatics like the present writer! Look at the petitions, see all those people sending in submissions to the Select Committee.

Nobody knows how many parents of home educated children there are in this country. Twenty thousand home educated children are known to local authorities and it is guessed that there might be many more who are unknown. Let us take fifty thousand as a ballpark figure. Obviously, some families will contain more than one child and all children will have two parents. This might give us perhaps seventy or eighty thousand parents. How many of these are so opposed to the recommendations contained in the Badman Report that they wish to do something, or indeed anything at all, about it?

Well to begin with there are internet petitions. I have to say that as somebody who was once very active politically, I am more than a little dubious about any sort of petition. In my experience, for every genuine name on a petition, there would generally be one or two added at various stages just to make the thing look more impressive. If you also take into account the number of friends, family and workmates who would sign the thing just as a favour, then only perhaps a third of the signatures represent those genuinely supporting the aim of the petition. If this is the case with pieces of paper that one actually has to sign, I shudder to think just how inflated must be email petitions, where one merely has to log on and click a mouse!

Perhaps the largest petition is that on No. 10's website, calling for the Badman Report to be scrapped. It currently has just under three and a half thousand signatures. They are not all home educating parents of course. I know this, because I recognise some of the names there. It is also easy to rig this petition by setting up a Hotmail account and submitting false names. This took me less than five minutes. I must therefore regard this particular petition with a certain amount of caution. Certainly, it tells us nothing about the percentage of parents opposed to the Badman Report. After all, as I said, they are not all parents. What about the Commons Select Committee which is going to review Graham Badman's conclusions then? Here, the situation is even feebler.

The Select Committee received about two hundred submissions. This hardly sounds as though those eighty thousand home educating parents are that inflamed about the Badman Report. True, some of the submissions were made on behalf of a groups of parents, but you would think that if they were that fussed they would write in themselves with their objections.
I have certainly heard people saying that thirty or so parents at their home education group are all of them are strongly against the Badman Report. It seems odd then that all these parents are not actually doing anything. If even a fifth of home educating parents in this country sent a few emails, that would mean perhaps fifteen thousand signatures on a petition or even fifteen thousand submissions to the Select Committee rather than two hundred.

The more closely I look at the furore surrounding Graham Badman's review of elective home education, the more I am beginning to suspect that it is the work of a few hundred fiercely dedicated individuals trying hard to create the illusion that they represent the masses. I am also starting to think it at least possible that most home educators, while having some reservations about the recommendations Graham Badman made, might possibly be in broad agreement with his views. In other words, perhaps I am not just a lone crank after all. A comforting thought indeed! So far, despite extensive searching, I have found no evidence to militate against such an hypothesis, except of course for the shrilly expressed views of fewer than 0.5% of home educating parents on sites such as HE-UK. The other 99.5% remain curiously and resolutely silent.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Inclusion and home education

Inclusion. It sounded such a great idea. Instead of herding all the disabled kids into special schools, why not integrate them into the mainstream, let them learn alongside everybody else? Of course there is no reason at all why somebody in a wheelchair shouldn't be able to use an ordinary school. Nor should deaf or blind children be excluded; with proper adaptations, they too can be accommodated. So far, so good. The problems really began when this same principle was applied to children with what is euphemistically termed "challenging behaviour". Some of these were what we call EBD (emotional and behavioural difficulties), others were on the autistic spectrum.

A few words about the motivation for all this. As usual, it was money. Special schools are colossally expensive to run. Closing them down enabled local authorities to sell the sites to proper developers, always a smart move, and the children themselves can be "supported" in mainstream schools. Instead of highly paid specialised teachers, why not pay classroom assistants to follow them around and keep an eye on them? It's got to be cheaper! You can guy it all up as compassion for the less fortunate as well. Some people even described this as the last civil rights movement, giving disabled children the same rights as everybody else. How caring is that?

How does all this affect home education? In several ways. Firstly, because autistic children no longer had the special provision that they needed. Often, they were just chucked into ordinary classrooms and expected to get on with it like the other kids. With luck, a speech therapist might pop by once a week and perhaps you can pay the dinner lady for a couple of extra hours at playtime to keep a watch upon the kid and see that she doesn't get mocked or picked on too much. This actually happens, dinner ladies being given extra hours to "support" autistic children. Little wonder that quite a few parents withdraw their kids and decide that they are better off at home.

Another problem is that if you have an EBD child rampaging round the classroom, refusing to sit down, maybe grabbing other children's work and tearing it up, then you won't have so much time to spend on the rest of the class. The more capable ones might just be able to get on with their work despite the disruption, but what about those children who find it hard to cope at the best of times? Hey, what if some of those children have special needs of their own; Aspergers, dyslexia, mild learning difficulties an so on. Well of course if you are the teacher, who are you going to focus your attentions on, the kid charging around shouting and having a tantrum or the quiet child sitting in the corner struggling desperately to understand the work? No contest really.

The parents of some of those neglected children also choose to de-register their children from school and who can blame them? I am bound to say that if my daughter had had autistic features or been any less robust than the average child, I would have thought very carefully before sending her to an ordinary school. It is not hard really to understand why there seems to be a higher proportion of children with special educational needs among home educated children. The wonder of it is that so many parents still put up with the system as it currently operates.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

How do I know that home education is sometimes used as a scam?

For a number of years I have worked part-time for a small charity based in East London. Among other things, I act as an advocate for the parents of children with special educational needs. This entails visiting their homes, most of which are on large housing estates. In recent years, I have noticed that many of these estates seem to have at least one or two youths hanging around who look as though they are only fourteen or so. Some are truanting, others have been excluded, but there are also those who have been de-registered because their parents are allegedly home educating them.

Whenever I visit a family to discuss their child's needs, I always ask if they know of any children living nearby who are home educated. This is sheer nosiness of course. Even worse, is the fact that if I can get an address I think nothing of knocking on the door and explaining that I have been visiting Mrs. X who lives on the fifth floor and that I am interested in home education. Almost invariably, I am invited in. Such invitations are less a tribute to my personal charm, which is in any case all but non-existent these days, and more to do with the fact that they think they might be able to get something out of me.

Once these parents realise that I am not employed by the local authority, they seldom bother to dissemble. The truth is that hardly any of them have ever had any intention of educating their children, either autonomously or otherwise. Why then have their children been de-registered? The reasons vary. Some have simply been unable to persuade their teenaged offspring to get out of bed in the morning and go to school. I have mentioned elsewhere that my own nephew fell into this category. Others have children who truant so regularly that they have been at risk of prosecution. Still others are parents of children who simply don't like school and can't see the point of going. Sometimes they can nag their parents into letting them stay at home on the pretext of home education.

There are sadder cases. One fourteen year old girl lived with her mother, who was mentally ill and agoraphobic. She hated it when her daughter went off to school for the day and left her alone. The daughter did not particularly enjoy school and so after a little research on the internet, she typed up a letter for her mother to sign, stating that she would home educate her daughter. The pair of them now spend the day watching television. If anybody asks, the daughter has told her mother to say, "We're autonomous." I doubt she even knows what the word means. In twenty first Century Britain this child has been abandoned by the system and now fulfils the role of nurse-companion to her sick mother. This is utterly disgraceful. Here, incidentally is a similar case from Norfolk which they gave to the Badman review;

"Faye's mother has mental and physical health problems; her elderly husband cannot fulfil the role of carer, so this has fallen to Faye. Faye's previous school did not inform our service at the time of her de-registration, so a considerable period of time elapsed before we became involved, during which time Faye had not received any education. There were various concerns about the appropriateness of home education due to Faye's home circumstances, along with her social isolation. Faye's mother refused an offer of support from Young Carers. Faye is obese and school phobic. She has regular hospital appointments relating to her obesity and associated problems and has been offered gastric band surgery when she is older. Faye's mother will not agree to any additional support, eg CAF, and has often been reluctant to meet with our service, cancelling various appointments at short notice. However, with support and encouragement over a period of three years, Faye's home education provision has improved."

I am not suggesting that autonomously educating parents are like this in general, nor that an autonomous education cannot be good for a child. The people I talk of above are at one extreme end of the home education spectrum. I rather think that the parents on this Blog lie at the other end; they are very committed to giving their children the best possible education, by whatever approach they choose. Somewhere between these two types lie the bulk of home educating parents, some of them doing well and others perhaps not quite as well. There might be parents who took their children from school intending to educate them and found they were not capable of doing so. Others who start well and then begin to flag, maybe need a little help and encouragement.

What I do know is that the current system is so slack that it enables many parents to take their children out of school without making any provision whatsoever for their education. I believe this to be a bad thing and it is for this reason that I am in favour of some of the recommendations in the Badman Report. I am aware that these might well inconvenience some genuine home educators, but I feel that this is a price worth paying.

A statement of educational approach and desired outcomes over the next twelve months


Part of Recommendation 1 of the Badman Report seems to be causing a great deal of anxiety to some home educating parents. This is the eighth section of that recommendation, which stipulates that parents should draw up an account of their educational approach and set out what they hope their child will achieve over the next twelve months. Try as I might, I cannot see why anybody would object to this.

I think most parents who teach their own child, no matter what their approach, probably have some idea of what they hope their child will be able to do in a years time that they cannot do now. They may hope that their child will become a more fluent reader. They might desire their child to use paragraphs in their writing, pass Grade 1 piano, be able to swim a length, ride a bike or master basic arithmetic. Few of us have detailed aims and projected outcomes, but most of us have a vague notion. I can see no reason not to share these hopes with officers from the local authority.

The only reason that I could understand a reluctance to do so would be if there would be a bad consequence if the child failed to reach the goals which I had set, but there is no hint of anything of this sort in Graham Badman's report. It is simply suggested that every year, officers from the LA will visit the family and see how the child is doing, using as a yardstick the parents' own plans and desired outcomes. I can find no mention of children being tested, much less the possibility of failure resulting in the child being forced to return to school.

All this seems to me to be a good thing. It might help to focus the parents' upon the enterprise which they have undertaken. I have no doubt that if at the back of one's mind is the knowledge that somebody will be casting an eye over what has been done from an educational viewpoint, it will encourage people to think hard about what their child is doing and how they are developing. When nobody else is watching, there can be a horrible temptation to let things drift a bit and the very existence of a plan which others have seen might tend to guard against this.

Monday, 21 September 2009

It's Still Easy to Home Educate in the Country - BUT...

Whilst I agree with Simon that it is very easy to home educate in this country, something that some head teachers of nearly expelled pupils are quite happy about, I am very concerned about the three week cooling off period recommended in the Badman review.

The state, quite frankly, has no business telling parents how long they can wait before they take their children out of school to home educate them, regardless of the reason the parent wants to remove the child.

If it is due to bullying, the parent doesn't get a whiff of bullying and then say "right, I'm getting you out of there Johnny!". It's usually after quite a long time of trying to work with the school and sort the problem out. The solution of removing the child from school to teach them at home is usually made when all else fails and it is clear that the school cannot or will not deal with the problem, and the child is under so much stress that there is no hope of them learning anything at school under those conditions.

To make a child endure another three weeks of that nonsense, when the parents have probably tried for at least a year to sort things out, is arrogant.

Because we know that in law it's the parents responsibility to educate their child, then what place does the state have in telling parents what they should do, when the school had it's chance and blew it?

Another worrying recommendation, is that the school write a report on the expected outcomes of the child who is to be home educated. WHAT A LOAD OF ........ Well, it's hardly the place to swear, but that recommendation REALLY winds me up.

My son's final report before he left reception said that he could read. He couldn't. If they had put on their expected outcome report that they expected him to be a free reader after a year, I would have failed to ensure my child reached their expectation and the LA might say, well, you're clearly not doing a good job, here, have this Statutory School Order on us.

To give a realistic educational expectation on a child who has learned nothing in school, will only serve to highlight the inadequacies of the school, therefore, the school is bound to inflate what the child would be expected to achieve, making it impossible for home educators.

So, whilst it's still easy to home educate in this country now, I have given two of the less spoken about recommendations in the review that could seriously impair our ability to home educate in this country if they go through.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

It's still easy to home educate in this country

Despite recent changes in the law, the setting up of ContactPoint, proposed legislation based upon the recommendations made by Graham Badman and so on; it is still very easy to home educate in this country. All you need to do is not send your child to school. I have been prompted to reflect upon this by a comment on one of my posts by somebody who believes that he will be at risk of arrest if he goes out with his child during school hours. This is a grotesque and unrealistic fear. I cannot imagine what law would be invoked for such an arrest.

It is quite true that if one does not send one's child to school, then there is more chance of the local authority hearing about it than was once the case. But then so what? All they can do is ask you a few questions and sometimes press for a visit which you are quite at liberty to decline. Most local authorities now are familiar with the idea of home education, which was certainly not the case twenty or thirty years ago. From that point of view, home educating is a lot easier than it once was.

While I am aware that some people have had problems with Truancy Patrols, the fact is that once they know that you are home educating they will, in general, leave you alone. My daughter and I were stopped by one when she was eight and that is how we became known to the local authority. However, I had no need to give them my name and address if I chose not to. I did so because we were not hiding from the LA, just had not seen any advantage in notifying them of our existence. They certainly have no right to arrest anybody! Children alone are slightly different and sometimes the police will wish to speak to a parent or guardian in order to ensure that they are genuinely being home educated.

Of course, all this may be about to change. In other words it may become more difficult to home educate in the future, although that is in some doubt. But for anybody to suggest that it is necessary to "jump hurdles" in order to do so, as somebody did in a comment yesterday, is frankly absurd. My advice to anybody wishing to educate their own child is, "Don't send your child to school". That's all there is to it. Incidentally, I cannot help noticing that some home educators are using the term "ultra vires" in order to describe the behaviour of local authorities who ask too many questions or pretend that they are entitled to visit homes. Ultra vires is a legal expression which can be applied to a public authority exceeding their lawful powers. In the case of a local authority asking questions or saying that they wish to visit a home, this is probably "reasonably incidental to its authorised activities" and so beyond any definition of ultra vires. We do not need to turn to obscure Latin phrases to describe this sort of thing. There are perfectly good English expressions which meet the case, such as "Trying it on" or "Coming the old soldier"!

Turning this into a Team Blog

I have been toying with the idea of opening this Blog up to others so that I am not the only one whose opinions are on display. I have asked a few people who are interested and if anybody else wishes to send me their email addresses, then I will see what I can do. Sharon, I was thinking of you in particular as you seem to have plenty of opinions! Otherwise, this Blog will degenerate into an extended and individual rant! Probably not what the average person wishes to read. My email address is;

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Home education - another fashionable cause?

It is I think generally agreed that those who hang out on the home education message boards such as EO and HE-UK are not necessarily representative of home educating parents as a whole. They never the less have a considerable influence because, as I have remarked before, they are often the ones whose letters are read in the newspapers, who are interviewed on television and meet MPs. I cannot help but notice that they seem very typical of campaigning, middle class women. There is of course nothing at all wrong with this. Some of my best friends are middle class women; indeed I am married to one. Never the less, I am intrigued to follow the current agitation against the recommendations of the Graham Badman Report and compare it with other such campaigns that I have observed in the past.

There is, it seems to me, a profile of the typical home educating activist. They are almost invariably women, often well educated and living in nice areas. They are opposed to nuclear energy and in favour of renewable sources. They vote Labour or Liberal, seldom, if ever, Conservative. They tend to be dubious about vaccination and more likely to fool about with homeopathic remedies than the general population. They are often vegetarian, read the Guardian or Independent and believe that America is always to be condemned, except for a few weeks earlier this year when they elected a black man as their president. Their children have been withdrawn from school not on ideological grounds, but because they have been bullied. They are "passionate" about home education rather than having chosen it for purely rational and well thought out reasons.

Those fighting the implementation of the recommendations of the Badman Report strike me as the sort of people one could equally well meet at a rally against the fluoridation of drinking water or the building of a nuclear power station. Fifty years ago they would have been wearing hats and speaking RP, packing a church hall to protest about Suez, the American blockade of Cuba or to help found a Working Man's Public Reading Room. In short, they favour worthy causes.

This is not really leading anywhere, I am just spinning a thread. I suppose at the back of my mind, I am wondering if home education will end up in a few years just like Suez and Cuba, as a quaint cause that certain people got very worked up about. In other words, taking the long view, is home education an exciting development in learning and very much the thing of the furture or is it just another brief crank idea which will in a decade or two be consigned to the dustbin of history?

Friday, 18 September 2009

A wonderful thing about home education

One of the most enjoyable features of home education is having sufficient time to cover any minor point of interest which might crop up in painstaking and exhaustive detail, rather than having to skim over it quickly in order to reach the next section of the curriculum. This can be very revealing and often tends to show school based education in a poor light. Science is a good example of this, particularly when some classic experiment which we all take for granted apparently goes wrong.

For instance, everybody is familiar with the image of Galileo dropping two weights, one large and heavy and the other small and light, from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. We also know of course what happened; both weights hit the ground at precisely the same time. A marvellous triumph of the empirical method over outdated and faulty theory! This story is to be found in practically every children's book of science. Uncritically, they repeat the account of the weights hitting the ground together. It is so obvious that only an idiot would bother to test the idea by recreating the experiment.....

Well, I'm an idiot and when my daughter was ten, we tested this experiment and were astounded to discover that the heavier weight always hits the ground first. We started with a large rock and a pebble and then moved on to a five kilo and hundred gram weights. We repeated the test again and again, varying all the conditions, but regardless of how we carried it out, the heavier weight always reached the ground before the lighter one! We spent a couple of days at this. Ah, the unlimited time available for such pursuits in the world of the home educating parent! It became apparent that all the school textbooks and every popular children's book of science were quite simply wrong. Why had nobody noticed? The answer is of course that when somebody is writing a school textbook, he does not actually go to the trouble of testing all that he writes. He just copies what other writers of science books have written before. Like a lazy high school student, he is effectively plagiarising by cut and paste. This is quite a shocking realisation, especially when one considers how reliant the average school pupil is upon these books for basic knowledge of the world.

In the case of the falling weights, it was necessary to track down and read Galileo's own account of this experiment in order to clear up the problem. In "Two New Sciences", published in 1638, he says, "A cannon ball weighing one or two hundred pounds, or even more, will not reach the ground by as much as a span ahead of a musket ball weighing only half a pound." In other words, Galileo himself knew perfectly well that the heavier object would hit the ground a little before the light one.

There are so many other examples of this sort of thing, that one hardly knows where to begin. In schools, of course, the syllabus is pursued at breakneck speed, flitting from one topic to another with barely time to draw breath so that every part of the curriculum can be covered in the allotted time. There just isn't time to check whether what is being taught is really true, which in this case it manifestly was not. The best part of this from an educational standpoint, was that my ten year old daughter learned for herself that no matter how many authoritative books state something as a cast iron fact, it is always worth checking for one's self. You might say that this was the beginning of her cynicism, for from that time onwards she got into the habit of asking herself, "How does he know that?" or, "Why should I take this person's word for this?" I believe that in most people, this attitude develops considerably later than the age of ten!

The school system depends upon the unquestioning acceptance of what is taught. Despite all the cant about collaborative learning and suchlike which trainee teachers are taught, the fact remains that there simply isn't enough time in schools to question what is found in textbooks and handouts. Imagine thirty children challenging every received dogma that is foisted off on them. What effect would that have upon a carefully contrived timetable? Another mark for home education!

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Everybody goes to school

There is one thing that practically every grown person in this country has in common. Young or old, rich or poor, black or white, male or female; everybody has attended school. Well, almost everybody. Everybody except the tiny handful of misfits and cranks who have been home educated. It is sometimes difficult for those intimately involved with some hobby, pastime or lifestyle, to appreciate just how strange it looks to outsiders. You have only to listen to a Scientologist or Moonie explaining his belief system and watch the expressions on the faces of the uninitiated as they listen. That's exactly the same look that you will see on people's faces when you talk to them about home education. I mean why wouldn't anybody send their kid to school? That is seriously weird!

Because so many of us spend a lot of our time talking, writing, reading and thinking about home education, we tend sometimes to forget how it looks to others. We take it for granted that everyone knows about the Badman Report or that people are aware that while education is compulsory, school is not. In fact, of course, the vast majority of people are still completely in the dark about all this. The Internet may have made information more freely available, but you still have to look for it.

The truth is, school is a given, probably the only given about which you can be certain when you meet a stranger. You may not know where she was born, who she votes for or how much she earns, but you definitely know that she went to school! In this respect, the adult who has never attended school is bound to be something of an oddity. It cannot help but mark one out in a thousand different ways, not all of them immediately apparent.

When my daughter started college last week, she came home a little bemused on the first day. Some of the children who had started were enchanted by a fantastically novel experience, something that they found really peculiar about college; they could visit the lavatory whenever they wished without first seeking permission! My daughter was utterly baffled by this. She also could not understand why a lot of the students persisted in calling the lecturers "Sir" and "Miss" , rather than using their Christian names. She has never called anybody "Sir" in the whole course of her life. These are two small examples of the shared cultural background that all adults in this country share, but from which home educated children are excluded. This lack of a common background cannot help but mark the home educated person out as being different from others, even a bit of an oddball. This might not necessarily be a good thing.

I still have a lot of doubts about home education, even as to whether it is the best way of raising children. Educationally, it is of course an amazingly efficient way of working. Unlimited one to one tuition, unrivalled opportunity for field trips and lectures in any subject you like, no distractions by a lot of idiots who don't want to learn. From that point of view, it is unbeatable. I am not at all sure though whether it is the best way for a child to grow and develop socially. I am also a little concerned at how home educated children may, as they get older, diverge more and more from the common social values which link all members of society together.

On a wider level, I cannot quite make up my mind whether home education is a marvellous, fast growing movement which represents in some sense the future of individualised learning, or if it is just another of those crackpot ideas like water births and macrobiotic diets over which the middle classes periodically go mad. Only time will tell.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Is the law on home education going to change?

There seems to be real and genuine anxiety among some parents about proposed changes in the law which might allow children to be interviewed by local authority officers without the parents' presence. How likely is such a law to find its way onto the statute books? Well, not at all likely really. Let us look closely at the process.

Transforming a recommendation from a review conducted for some government department into a new law is quite a big step. The Badman report made a number of recommendations and there is no way of telling which parts of them will be chosen as the basis for new legislation. Often, the laws that emerge from such reviews are all but unrecognisable when compared with the original ideas that were suggested. The chance of one sentence taken from the twenty eight recommendations of the Badman Report eventually ending up as the law of England is slim. More probable by far is some bland and anodyne statement that local authorities should make every effort to establish that children are receiving a suitable education. However, let us assume a worst case scenario and take it for granted that this is the intention of the lawmakers, that they really want the right of LA officers to see children alone.

The next hurdle is that the government is rapidly running out of time. The next election will be held next June at the latest, so I would say offhand that there is only a fifty fifty chance of this being dealt with during the life of this parliament. If it does make it into law then we can say one thing with complete assurance; that it will be a hasty and poorly worded law. This is good, for reasons which I shall explain later. For now, let us again assume a worst case and that the law has been passed. What now?

It is important to realise that many laws are passed and then virtually ignored by everybody. Easter, for example, was fixed by an Act of Parliament in 1928 as being the Sunday after the second Saturday in April. It is legally not a moveable feast at all and has not been for over eighty years! You were probably not aware of this, because nobody took the least bit of notice of the law. More recent and relevant to us is the Caravan Sites Act 1968. This laid a statutory duty on all local authorities to provide campsites for Gypsies. Many councils simply ignored it and there has been no consequence at all for them. Central government often pass laws like this which require local authorities to do this or that. Many of these laws are disregarded. So even if the law is passed, there will be a good deal of discretion for local authorities as to how strictly it is enforced.

Let us pretend though that all this has happened. The law has been passed, it includes the right of local authority officers to interview children alone, everything is settled now, surely? No, this is where the fun begins! The first thing that will happen is that the law will be tested in the courts and the test here when a public authority is carrying out what it sees as its functions is not just whether the body is acting in accordance with its powers, but if it is being reasonable and proportionate. This means that even if the local authority is acting within the law, the courts can tell them to lay off on the grounds that their behaviour is unreasonable. I can't see it being five minutes before this ends up in a Judicial Review. In short, the courts will have to decide whether expecting to enter a home against the wishes of the parents and speak to a child alone is a reasonable requirement. They will make their decision in the light of precedent and also the test of what is reasonable and proportionate. I can't see such a clause surviving, even if it was in the new legislation. This would be made even more likely because this law, if it is passed, will be a typical rushed job, cobbled together and pushed through in haste. Such laws tend to be very easy for the courts to reject.

To summarise, there is a long way to go before anybody needs to get het up about all this. My personal view is that some new legislation would not come at all amiss. I realise that not everyone agrees with me on that point, to say the least of it. But it does not really matter, because the chances of local authorities actually ending up with specific powers about interviewing children alone are negligible.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

"This is going to make a lot of happy, intelligent, sensible young people, become unhappy, fearful and insecure."

The above words are from the comments page in the Times on Monday and they were written by a parent apropos of the Badman Report and its proposals for regular visits from the local authority to check up on home education. I have to say, I find this a truly extraordinary assertion and cannot help but wonder what sort of young people the writer associates with! I mean, really.

The overwhelming majority of happy, intelligent, sensible and well balanced young people are used to meeting a wide variety of strangers on a regular basis. If they are home educated, then they are probably also used to at least some of these strangers asking them fatheaded questions like, "Do you know your nine times table?" or "What will you do about GCSEs?" The idea that a stranger coming to the house once a year will precipitate stable and well balanced young people to lapse into a state of fearful insecurity by asking questions like this, is a very odd one. It might have that effect upon their parents, I suppose, particularly if they are anxious about the impending visit because they have not been educating their child. This anxiety could then transmit itself to the child. In such a case though, it is the parents who are responsible for the resultant unhappiness and insecurity, not the local authority.

I have only encountered one case of this sort of behaviour personally. This was a home educating family a few miles away whom we visited when my daughter was nine. The daughter was so timid and shy that she hid upstairs during our visit and communicated by calling downstairs to her mother. Even at the age of nine, my daughter found this very peculiar. Without wishing to appear judgemental or pejorative, both the child's parents were mad as Hatters, which I think had some bearing on the behaviour of the child herself.

In general, it seems to be parents who are upset about children being questioned, rather than the children themselves. One of the mothers who was present, told me what happened when Graham Badman visited a home education group in Kent. A child expressed the desire to be a vet when she grew up. Graham Badman very pleasantly enquired if she knew that she would need a high level of mathematics for such an ambition to be feasible. He asked her casually if she was familiar with, say, the concept of square roots. Upon which, several parents intervened indignantly and the whole incident has passed into legend as showing Badman in his true colours as a villainous character like the Childcatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

I suppose that there may exist children who are so pathologically shy and nervous that they would be traumatised by the presence of an unfamiliar adult, particularly one who spoke to them. Such children are surely rare and I have no doubt at all that this degree of neurosis would qualify as a special educational need in itself and be taken into account and catered for sensitively under any new regulations. Most normal children and young people are however a little more robust. Many actually enjoy showing off and talking about their achievements. This was certainly the case with my own daughter and I used to pity the officer from our local authority who had to sit through my daughter's playing of the guitar, recorder and piano and then feign pleasure at the sight of her paintings before reading long passages of her creative writing! What a hideous job, spending the day watching other people's ghastly kids showing off!

I may perhaps be wrong, but I get the distinct impression that many of the parents who are getting worked up about this issue are themselves somewhat highly strung and emotional. As I said above, anxiety can easily be transmitted to their children and the result could be that the whole family are in a state of profound nervous excitement as the day approaches for a visit from the LA. The remedy surely lies in the parents relaxing a bit and reassuring their child that there is really nothing to be worried about.

The Bible and home education

I made a somewhat rash statement yesterday, to the effect that I thought that religion would not be a major factor in the decision to home educate, at least not in this country. Of course, there are those who home educate for this reason. I have to say that my decision to teach my own child was not primarily motivated by this consideration, but it was certainly an important pointer to me that I was on the right track. I wonder if there is anybody else here for whom this was taken into account?

I suppose that two important injunctions have always been to the forefront of my mind. The first is Proverbs 22 verse 6; Raise up a child in the way he should go and he will not depart from it even in old age. Secondly, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. I believe that the family and not the individual is the basic unit of society. I also believe that the Lord instituted this plan. Which, I am bound to confess, makes my stand on new legislation a little tricky. After all, if as I truly believe home education is sanctioned by scripture, why should I want the essentially secular state to concern itself in the matter?

I would probably have home educated even if the law had been against me. The reason for this is plain; I believe that the family is sacred and that it is where children learn everything worth knowing. I think that anything that strikes at the institution of the family, strikes at the heart of society. I also believe of course, that I have a duty to teach my child about God and his commandments and that this duty to is best fulfilled by keeping her at home to teach her. Why then am I in favour of a change in the law which would allow the state to interfere in family life? Because it is what families do that make the family sacred. There are bad families and good families.

If I had decided to follow Jephthah's example, as related in Chapter 11 of Judges, then I would taken a wrong turn and it would be time for others to intervene and set things straight. For those unfamiliar with the story, Jepththah, although a God fearing man, vowed that if he won a battle then he would sacrifice the first living thing he saw when he returned home. This turned out to be his daughter and he duly offered her up as a burnt sacrifice. Personally, I think that it would have been a better thing if the other Gileadites had had a quiet word with him and told him he was doing wrong. (I hope that nobody from the DCSF reads this, otherwise they will be launching an enquiry in the possibility of home educating fathers offering up their children as burnt sacrifices!)

In other words, the family is very important to me, but I recognise that others might have a right to step in if, for instance, I decided to follow Jephthah's example and sacrifice my daughter. Even if I neglected her health or education, then I feel that others might also have a right to take notice. My child is a precious gift from God, but she does not belong to me to do with as I will. Society as a whole is concerned with her as well. It is in that context that I believe that society, as represented by the DCSF, has the right to be concerned about children.

As an aside, I never tire of telling people that there is no mention of school in the Bible. A brief mention of a schoolmaster in Galatians, but school, not at all! Another ringing endorsement of home education.

I would be curious to know if anybody else who reads this Blog has any view on this, particularly from a Biblical perspective. For those who do not home educate for this reason, I can only offer my apologies if I have sounded like some species of religious maniac here. But hey, didn't somebody talk recently about the great diversity of home education....

Sunday, 13 September 2009

The "S" word

I am always amused when the parents of children at school ask me sadly, "Don't you think that your daughter might have missed out on the social side of school?" Here is an example of why I find this funny.

A few years ago our local council staged a raft of activities during the Summer holidays for children and young people. After all, everybody agrees that there's not much for the kids to do round here over the Summer. That year there was archery, kyaking, assertiveness training; masses of exciting stuff to do and all of it completely free. Needless to say my daughter, who was eleven at the time, booked up for practically everything . Unfortunately, about half the sessions were cancelled because not enough children could be found to make it worthwhile to run them. Odd.

When I asked the children of friends why they had not wanted to do all these interesting things, the response was predictable and depressing. "I won't know anyone there!", "None of my mates are going!" In other words, the idea of going somewhere and doing stuff with young people that they didn't know was anathema to these children.

I have observed this phenomenon over and over again. By the time they reach secondary school at the latest, children start sticking only to their school friends or those in other known groups. They will not generally talk to those older or younger, or socialise with adults. They avoid strangers like the plague. Is this the much vaunted socialisation? There is a pretty lousy college in our area; if you want a decent sixth form you have to go to a school about five miles away. Almost without exception, local school leavers choose the college, purely and simply because that's where everybody else is going.

The phrases, "I won't know anybody!" and "None of my mates are going!" are almost leitmotifs of modern youth. Those two commonly heard expressions of anxiety tell us all we really need to know about socialisation among schooled young people.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

The Autonomous Mafia - the tail that wags the dog

Whenever anybody is quoted in the newspapers as criticising or even questioning the efficacy of home education, you may be sure that the comments section of online editions and the letters page in the traditional edition will be filled with denunciations of the ignorance/malice/vested interests/ stupidity/cupidity/ sinister motives of whoever has expressed the opinion. Wow, it surely look as though public opinion is solidly in favour of home education. Vox populi, vox Dei! Welcome to the startlingly well organised agitprop section of the autonomous home educators
Those who, like the present writer, hang out on the message boards of EO and HE-UK will of course be well aware that there are perhaps only two or three dozen regulars, those who contribute day after day. If we assume that there are fifty or sixty thousand home educated children in this country, then there might be somewhere in the region of eighty thousand parents. Those stalwarts of the HE lists thus represent fewer than 0.05 % of home educators. Taking a closer look at those who swamp the comments sections when articles on home education appear in the media reveals a most curious thing; they are largely those same people who are such indefatigable contributors to the message boards. (When these people find time actually to educate their children is a mystery to me! They post at two or three in the morning and then again at five AM. Some of them are online all day long as well.)

The same hard core are also the ones who organise petitions, lobby MPs, and generally behave as though they are a mass movement rather than a small group of dedicated activists. Another of their important roles is to patrol the message boards and put in their place anybody who doubts that the Badman Report is all bad, that local authority officers are agents of the Prince of Darkness or that autonomous education might not be the best way of doing things. I have had many emails offlist from people on these message boards who like to keep in touch with home education by belonging to this online community, but who do not post because of the responses that they have had in the past. Many of them agree with things that I have said on the lists, but do not wish to say so publicly for fear of the reaction. For example, more than one person has told me that they would not dare reveal on the HE-UK message board that they are actually teaching their children to read. This is, to say the least of it, a strange state of affairs to find in a support group for those who are educating their children!

I am not of course an entirely impartial observer of these shenanigans. When I had a couple of articles published on the subject a few weeks ago, the response from the autonomous activists was swift and ruthless. It demonstrates clearly how these characters operate. Here is somebody cross posting on EO and HE-UK , urging others to help skew the comments section of the TES against the Badman report;

" What about lots of comments that support Jeremy but ignore Simon.And don't forget to vote in the poll."

After a few people had expressed qualified support for my views, the same person posted again on the lists;

"Couple of less supportive comments on there now, even a nothing to fearnothing to hide one! Anyone got the energy to slam em."

"Slam em'". Nice, eh? One would, by the way, hardly guess that she was married to a professor. This same process happens every time a newspaper publishes anything on home education. It is often combined with smears and innuendo against those who are less than whole heartedly in favour of home education, particularly the autonomous variety. Graham Badman himself has been the subject of death threats and while nothing as unpleasant has happened to me, I have certainly had many lies told about me in an attempt to discredit my views. For example the same person who posted the above comments also tried to start a rumour that I was actually a home education inspector!;

The mad idea that I am a friend or colleague of Graham Badman is still doing the rounds in cyberspace; a ludicrous fabrication which was first cooked up on the HE-UK list and then deliberately peddled as fact to newspaper editors. Of course I am not alone in this. When Professor Alan Smithers, a liberal and humane educationalist from Buckingham University, expressed reservations in the press about autonomous home education, he received emails branding him a fascist!

In fairness to these individuals , I believe that they honestly see themselves as the vanguard of the home educating movement, providing a voice for those too idle or inarticulate to speak out for themselves. That is certainly one way of looking at it. The other possibility is that they are a handful of strident and media savvy fanatics who are determined to impose their view upon others by any means at their disposal. For now at least the jury is still out on the question of precisely whose views and opinions the likes of firebird2110, bornjoyful and Maire52 are actually representing other than their own.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Will local authorities have the right to enter our homes?

Perhaps the most controversial recommendation of the Badman Report is No. 7, which is that designated local authority officers should have a right of access to the homes of home educating parents. Time and again on the HE-UK and EO message boards, it is this part of the report that people seem to find most threatening and unacceptable.

It is perhaps worth bearing in mind that local authorities already have the power to enter our homes for hundreds of different reasons. For instance, under the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 the local authority can come into your garden to measure the height of hedges. They can come onto our property to check for the presence of rabbits (Pests Act 1954) and also enter any home if they have reason to suspect that illegal or unregulated hypnotism is taking place (Hypnotism Act 1952). And just in case you were planning to start home educating a bear in your house and think it is no business of the local authority what you do in the privacy of your own home, then you'd better think again! The Performing Animals Regulations Act 1925 confers the power on local authorities to enter any home in order to search for performing or trained animals.

Needless to say, local authorities do not actually make a habit of raiding people's homes to search for unregulated hypnotists or dancing bears. Nor, I strongly suspect, are they likely to start kicking anybody's door down in the future, while searching for poorly educated children. For one thing, all these powers of entry need to be backed up by an application to a Justice of the Peace and a similar restriction would almost certainly apply to any new legislation about home education. Governments and local authorities love to arm themselves with Draconian measures like this, even if are seldom used. I'm sure that a psychologist could explain this craving for various powers.

Every so often, governments rush to introduce laws designed to tackle some perceived menace which must be swiftly dealt with. Almost invariably such laws are hastily drafted and impossible to enforce. I'm sure we all remember the introduction of the Dangerous Dogs Act in 1991? It followed some highly publicised dog attacks and is now all but ignored. Where I work it is quite common to see people walking Pitbulls. Nobody, least of all the police, have any desire to take action. The Pests Act mentioned above was a similar rushed job, brought in to deal with the threat of Myxomatosis. All the signs are that the new law currently being contemplated on home education will be of the same type.

We have to remember also that local authorities already have the power to enforce thousands of laws and regulations covering every aspect of our lives. Everything from the minimum height of shop awnings to the fact that out front garden gates must open inwardly. Nobody has the time, energy or inclination to pursue most of these laws and regulations.

I believe that even if a new law is passed which requires home educators to open their homes to officers from the local authority, nothing much will change. As is currently the case, if the LA is worried about the welfare of a child they will take action. I really cannot see them applying to the courts for an order to enter the home of somebody just because they are educating their child autonomously! I can just see how well this would play with the local police, who would be required to waste their time by attending any such attempt to force entry to a home. I can also not see it looking very good in the local paper. So even if they acquire new powers, my guess is that LAs will be extremely sparing in their use of them.

Local authorities have extensive powers to enter our homes for a huge number of reasons. They never use these powers and the addition of one more to the hundreds which they already possess and do not use would probably make little difference to anybody.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

What's wrong with modern schools?

Like most home educating parents, I am not favourably disposed towards schools. I consider mass instruction of children to be a wasteful and inefficient mode of education compare with the unlimited one-to-one tuition so readily available in a domestic setting. However, I regard schools as a necessary evil, since the vast majority of parents are apparently unable or unwilling to assume responsibility for their children's education. I do feel though that these institutions could do with a good shake-up. Here are two anecdotes which perfectly illustrate what is wrong with modern schools. (I am well aware that I am beginning to sound like some peppery old, retired colonel writing to the Daily Mail from Tunbridge Wells!)

The first is from a local primary school. Mixed ability teaching is not easy and nor is it the best way of handling education. Obviously, the narrower the range of abilities, the easier it is to provide a lesson which will suit all the children. Conversely, with a wider range, both the very able and the least able will be neglected. The mother of a seven year old boy was recently approached by her child's teacher. The child in question is very bright and has the reading level of an eleven or twelve year old. The teacher was concerned that the boy was getting restless and bored while the rest of the class struggled to master the rudiments of reading. Her solution was simple. Could his mother perhaps discourage him from reading for a while and not provide him with so many books, at least until the rest of the group had mastered what she was teaching them! The mother's reaction to this request is not fit to print in a family oriented Blog such as this.

Here is part of what is wrong with modern schools; they are all too often run for the benefit not of pupils but of those who work there. The teacher's problem was not a bright child being failed , but a lesson which was not running as smoothly as she could have wished. The teaching has thus become an end in itself, as is the filling out of forms and achievement of targets; all of which are to be ruthlessly pursued, no matter what the consequences for the children. Which brings me neatly to the second story. This concerns the Davenant Foundation School , a local secondary. It is much sought after, in fact as I mentioned in a previous post, one needs a ten year record of church attendance to get in.

Those with children at school will know that DVDs are often put on at the drop of a hat these days. Doing "Lord of the Flies"? Stick on the DVD. Almost Christmas? Why not let the kids watch a DVD. End of term? DVD. As if the average pupil didn't watch enough television at home! You can even stick on a DVD for PE and save yourself the trouble of demonstrating physical jerks to your class. This is absolutely true, by the way. A local primary school was using a Mr. Motivator exercise tape for PE, until a parent complained. Spoilsport! One great advantage of this practice is that it keeps the kids quiet and leaves you able to catch up on all your paperwork.

In a year 8 English class at Davenant last term, the teacher was really behind with things and so hit upon a brilliant scheme to avoid having to teach his pupils, while at the same time allowing him to fill out a load of paperwork which would prove to the LA and DCSF that he actually had been teaching them and pretty brilliantly too. How to occupy them while he did this? He brought in "Pirates of the Caribbean" and showed it to the class in three segments, taking up three entire periods. Then, because he still had not finished his own work, for the fourth lesson he got them to draw treasure maps and colour them in! Bear in mind that these are not seven year olds but twelve and thirteen year olds at the best school for miles around. Four whole English lessons doing absolutely nothing to the purpose of learning English. Again, the aim of the teacher was not to teach, but to complete a lot of paperwork which proved that he was teaching.

It is this Alice in Wonderland world, where furnishing evidence that one is teaching is seen as more important than the teaching itself, in which many of our children are trapped The attempt to check what is happening in schools by regular testing was a sound idea, except that this too has now become an end in itself. The purpose of the test in not to see what the teaching is like; rather the purpose of the teaching is to see how well we can do in the test. I dare say that many readers will agree with what I have said on this topic, because of course we all, for varying reasons, have taken the decision not to allow our children near this deeply flawed system. What can be done about it is quite a different matter. The 1988 Education Bill was a valiant attempt to reform the teaching system but has been subverted to such an extent that it is now the root cause of much of what ails our schools. Another great reformation is long overdue.

Should children who are not receiving a "suitable education" be sent back to school?

There can be little doubt that many children supposedly being taught at home are actually receiving no sort of education at all. Does this matter? Should the local authority have the power to send such children back to school? It depends, I think, upon the circumstances.

There are at least three completely different groups of children who are not at school and are probably not receiving a "suitable education". The first are older teenagers who have been deregistered from school because they are regular truants, hate school or are in danger of being excluded for bad behaviour. Another group are children with learning difficulties of such severity that there is no realistic chance of their developing much beyond their current capabilities. The last group are the most controversial. They are children who have been withdrawn from school by their parents with the genuine intention of teaching them, but who then find themselves incapable of providing a good education for their children. Let us look at each of these categories in turn.

Fourteen and fifteen year old youths who have no intention of studying at school and are sick of the whole business of being educated are a very difficult case. On the one hand, dragging them back to school would be pointless for them; they won't actually learn anything there. Even if you can force them to sit in a classroom they will disrupt the education of those who do wish to learn. I doubt there is much to be gained by taking their parents to court either. On the other hand, I would be reluctant to accept that we should just write them off and say effectively, "Leave them to it, there's no point bothering with them!" Perhaps more vocational course at FE colleges are the answer.

Some children with severe learning difficulties, global developmental delay combined with autistic features, that sort of thing, are not going to learn much whether they are at school or home. For such children, being at home with a loving parent doing what they please is likely to be a good deal kinder than the constant badgering and attempts to engage them which they are likely to get in a special school. Sometimes, all the specialised teaching in the world will only cause distress, and all to no real purpose. In these cases, the child is perhaps better at home with his parents, no matter what the staff at the school say. I have had some experience of children like this, whose parents just want them safe at home with them and I am wholly on the parents' side. Even when the child is capable of making progress, the distress caused by the whole teaching process often seems, at least to me, to amount to cruelty. Most LAs turn a blind eye to this group and realise that they are happier at home with their families.

The final category are those whose existence most exercised Graham Badman during his review of elective home education. They are the children who are being kept at home with parents who really do not know how to provide them with an education. These children have been deregistered because of bullying, minor special educational needs or because their parents have fallen out with the school. Many of this group are of primary school age and a lot of local authorities are genuinely concerned that they are not being educated and that this will have a bad effect on their prospects in later life. I suppose that ideally such families would be offered support and help from the LA; help with advice on following a curriculum and so on. There are two problems here. First, many of these families have had a lot of conflict with the school and local authority. They do not want anything to do with them, they just want to be left alone. Secondly of course, many of the parents are "autonomous", so they won't want help with any sort of curriculum at all.

It is families like this who are likely to bear the brunt of any new legislation. Ultimately, I suppose, there will be sanctions like fines and prison in order to force parents to engage with the LA, just as is currently the case with the parents of truants. I really cannot think though that sending mothers to prison just because they are not teaching their children effectively would be a just and equitable solution to such a problem. Nor would taking their children into care, another possibility if welfare concerns are invoked. What should we do then, if we are satisfied that a child is not being educated adequately and the parents refuse to discuss the situation and come to a compromise?

I have no answer at all to this. Like many people I am worried about some of the children who are not being sent to school. I am in favour of new laws, but have not the least notion of what we can do ultimately to make parents educate their children. As I say, locking up the parents and putting the kids in care is hardly likely to improve their educational prospects! I think that other home educating parents are aware of this situation, but avoid fretting over it either by denying that such families exist or claiming that they are very rare.