Wednesday, 2 September 2009

The zeal of converts

One of the things that has struck me recently about the HE-UK and EO message boards is the remarkably short time that some of the most forceful and aggressive parents have actually been home educating. Indeed, there seems often to be a correlation; the longer that the person has been home educating, the more tolerant and laid back they tend to be about the business and vice versa. It struck me that this is very much like the zeal and enthusiasm of new converts to a religion, as opposed to those who have been born into it.

It is a common observation that converts to a religion often seem to be far more strict and evangelical about their faith than those who have practiced it throughout their life. Here is an extract from an email from a well known activist in autonomous education;

" If we do not want the state through its schools dictating how our children learn we certainly do not want other home educators doing so!"

Hot stuff, eh? (And, incidentally, a coded reference to me!) Incredibly, this woman is the mother of four children, all of whom attended school. It was only when the youngest child encountered problems wholly unrelated to education that the mother deregistered her, a mere twenty two months before she wrote that email....... This is by no means exceptional. Many of the most well known names in the current campaign against the Badman review have only been home educating for a year or two.

I find this interesting from a psychological point of view. I exchange emails regularly with a number of parents who, like me, have been home educating for many years. They may not agree with my views, but we are able to have good humoured discussions which do not descend into acrimony. Very different is my experience with those like the woman mentioned above who only came to the faith in the last couple of years. They tend to be vehement, even embittered, attacking any perceived opposition to home education with fanatical zeal. The reason may well lie in why they have taken the decision to home educate.

Many such parents withdraw their children from school due to bullying. This is a horrible experience for parents; to see their child helpless in the face of sustained aggression. I am guessing that those who have recently been in this position feel more strongly about schools and their flaws than those who have had little or no dealings with them for many years. I do not blame them for this in the slightest. It is just slightly irritating when I, who have been home educating for over a decade, am accused by somebody who started eighteen months ago of not being a dedicated and committed enough home educator!

Another longstanding home educator remarked to me recently that it is probably a good thing that so many of these people are at the forefront of home education these days. They do provide a degree of passion and drive which older hands might lack. I dare say that there is something in this and that their energy in the cause of home education is far more important than any slight annoyance to me personally when they lambast me for my treacherous and unorthodox views on home visits, the Badman Report and such like.


  1. Hmm - alternative theory (not sure there is enough evidence though!) - the most vociferous/politically active are those who believe in AE... and these are more represented amongst the newer home eductors because of the spread of internet contact - 12 years ago...when you started,(?) there was less info available to the new home edder who may have settled down to a more structured approach. Now it seems self evident to me that many AE people will have more free time to spend in campaigning... I certainly was committed for example, to spending a good part of each day sitting alongside my dd -no time for anything else. Futhermore it could be argued that AEers have more to lose by the implementation of Badman's are bound to be at the forefront of any campaigning.

  2. I don't think that the two thoeries are mutually exclusive, Julie; it's probably a bit of both. I think had the internet been as common in the early nineties as it is today, I would have spent more time online and less teaching my daughter. Since the dominant HE ideology online is autonomous education, it seems likely that this has an effect on how many people view the subject.

  3. Simon,

    I'm pretty active working against the new legislation and I've been home educating for 14 years and am not an AE'er. So, not sure about those theories. LOL!

    However, as we move into my final year of HE with second child and lots of exam work this year, I am going to have to take more of a back seat in the campaign. I'm relying on the enthusiasm of younger mums to take over!

    It's not just AE'ers who have something to lose by tighter monitoring. It's also those who want to use a religious curriculum I fear for. And those whose children do not progress as well as the average child due to special needs.

  4. Julie said
    "these are more represented amongst the newer home eductors because of the spread of internet contact - 12 years ago...when you started,(?) there was less info available to the new home edder who may have settled down to a more structured approach."

    I don't think this is accurate. There was plenty of information about autonomous education in books and the EO and Taking Children Seriously magazines when I first looked into home education 17 years ago.

    "Now it seems self evident to me that many AE people will have more free time to spend in campaigning...

    This is certainly not the case, especially when children are younger. Teenagers may be more self sufficient and capable of working through correspondence courses themselves, for instance, but we spent most of our time doing things with out autonomously home educated children, be it trips to the park, walks in the country, museum visits, watching TV with them, organised visits to fire stations, sewage plants, historical buildings, discussions about all these and much else, etc... Autonomous education usually includes some structured learning in mine and my friends experience. I am currently working through the Toe by Toe reading scheme, a maths text book, reading real books and am about to start on biology and chemistry text books with one of my children at their request and have supported others follow various correspondence courses including, English, creative writing, art a design and maths. If anything, a structured home educator who spends 2-3 hours working with their child in the morning may even have more spare time!

    I don't think it's necessary to compare the zeal of a new convert to religion. It often happens that when someone makes a discovery they want to share it with others, even something as simple as a new product or shop. When parents view home education as saving their child, it's not difficult to see why they might want to spread the word.

    It's not difficult to see why autonomous home educators tend to be more vocal at times of attack; they are invariably the most likely to be on the front line. Inspectors are more likely to refuse to accept autonomous education as suitable than a family that sits down and creates written work for several hours a day. They will feel much more comfortable with something that looks like school.

    I've also noticed something during my recent return to reading email lists. There seems to be a reaction amongst structured home educators reminiscent of the reaction some school using parents have to the idea of home education. They seem to see the preference for autonomous education by other parents as a criticism of their choice to follow a more structured approach. Some school using parents display exactly the same behaviour when you mention that you home educate. Just talking about home education has this effect, you don't even need to criticise schools to see this reaction.

  5. There is certainly something in what you say, Sharon. When I meet parents who send their kids to school, they seems to regard my choice of home education as a criticism of their own decision to use a school. I have lost count of the number of times that a schooling family have asked me, "Why did you decide to home educate?"
    To which, the only sensible reply is, "Tell me, why did you decide to send your child to school?"

  6. you just set up a school at home simon thats not home education your like a lap dog having to get approvel from your masters such as the LEA/DCSF becuase you belive in the state school system and the people who run it> why do you suck up to the LEA/dcsf and good old uncle Badman? you got a crush on him? dont forget to invite the LEA round to see those exam results!

  7. Simon may have followed a school like approach over the last few years, but his descriptions of earlier years sound very similar to ours! From what I've read and seen of Simone, I don't think she has been forced into this style of home education, I get the impression that it has largely with her consent (really hope this is the case - I hate the idea of forced hot housing) and I'm certain that her time spent 'working' will have been considerably shorter than a child gaining the same qualifications in school! I'm sure Simon can speak for himself but just because we disagree with some of his views doesn't mean that everything he does is wrong!

  8. Interesting point, Mr. Williams. Had I believed in the state school system as you say, then I would probably have sent my daughter to school, rather than educating her myself. Such statements come oddly from you, a parent who sent his child to a state school and only withdraw him in a huff when the school was relucant to allow a day off a week for chess! I wonder which of us has really demonstrated support of the state school system. I am also baffled as to how the DCSF and Essex Council are my "masters"! I dare say you know what you mean, even if most right thinking people regard your comments as incomprehensible gibberish.

  9. Sharon- we do know that Simone could well have been forced into this style of education because Simon belives in forcing children to do as they are told he said so! I demand an inpection to find out if she has been forced into this? what methods does he use to force the child to sit at the table?
    there is something fishy about all of this!

  10. Thanks for your comment, Sharon. I really would like to see anybody try and "hothouse" my daughter! It is quite literally impossible to get a child to do stuff like that without willing co-operation. How, I wonder, could one make a child learn about Physics? Even if one could manage this miracle, imagine the golden opportunity for them to revenge themselves by screwing up in the exams. I have seen this happening with various school educated friends of Simone in the last few weeks, where the parents kept the kids to the grindstone and the children retaliated by getting Es and even Us in their examinations.

  11. you belive in the state school system simon? all you done is have school at home.
    You do suck up to the DCSF badman and Essex LEA you invite them into you home because you need LEA approvel from them over your home education am i doing it right did you ask them? you met Badman what did you say to him? how come you got to meet him but many other home educated children nwhere ignored? did you offer to sit on his panel or his knee?
    We never went off in a huff went off to do home eudcation on june 23rd 2003 and of course your be plaesed to know that not one single home visit or meeting has ever taken place with the Hampshire LEA and boy did that hurt them! Hampshire LEA is Crap and has no guts just like you. I want a school attendnace order we want to burn it on our county counclior coal fire like the last one!

  12. "It is quite literally impossible to get a child to do stuff like that without willing co-operation."

    I'm not sure about that, there have been cases of hot housing that have gone disastrously wrong but have appeared to be fine up to and beyond GCSE level. The problem may have been the young age of the children concerned though. Younger children are more easily controlled and manipulated, some anyway, I'm not sure my eldest would have been, hence the home education!

  13. Ah, I expect you are referring to that girl who got into Oxford at 15 and ended up on the game? To say nothing of Ruth Lawrence..... Yes, fair point. However, I can assure you that my daughter has a little more spirit!

  14. is that because your be checking and rechecking your daughter? just to make sure will you follow here to higher education? could film her just to make sure if you dont your always wonder what she is geting up to when your not around to keep a frim grip on her(for her own good of course) you could ask her friends to keep an eye on her but could you trust them? there could cover for her?

  15. "However, I can assure you that my daughter has a little more spirit!"

    That was my impression! You must be very proud.

  16. Showing off more like.and having the brass neck to tell other home educators to let the nice LEA man into your house to judge you.

  17. Wading through all the comments - yes, in proposing my theory I am aware that there are exceptions (a bit like the smoker of 40 a day who lives to 90) but the trouble with home ed is that not only is the sample size smaller but the vocabularly is difficult to define. When Simon talks about AE he doesn't seem to be describing the same sort of education as Sharon. And what anyone means by "school at home" is as wide as you want to make it! When my daughter was primary age, we were still fostering so we spent hours each day lurking in the cafe at Debenhams in Southsea, school books in hand, "doing school work" whilst various foster children were at access visits to parents at a family centre around the corner. So "home ed" took place everywhere but at home, although it shared the characteristics of "school work" in that we used some textbooks, followed some sort of curriculum (which changed year by year, but there was a master plan) and although there was never a timetable, we always did maths first and then English, whilst the rest of the day was spent either gadding around on visits or art work etc. So is that "school at home"?

  18. juile-you where a foster carer is there no end to your talents? i know that Debenhams in southsea can still picture it as if it was yesterday visiting my Aunt.

  19. Simon's descriptions of autonomous education sound more like laissez-faire parenting to me. Here's a good description:

    "Autonomy is the right of self-government and free will. Education is the process by which we develop intellectual potential and foster the growth of knowledge. Education relies on a rational development of conjecture and refutation. Autonomous education is simply that process by which knowledge grows because of the intrinsic motivation of the individual. In fact, the core to understanding autonomous education is in understanding the absolutely fundamental and unshakeable role of intrinsic motivation...

    It is a core assumption of autonomous education that children will acquire the skills they need to take advantage of their environment and pursue their own aspirations. As such literacy and numeracy are not forced components of a curriculum, but are outcomes within the process acquired in numerous ways, both formal and informal, depending on the child's questions and developing educational priorities. What could be more efficient than a child learning something to suit his or her own intrinsic and individual purposes? "

    I have no argument with others who prefer a more structured approach and some of our friends do. We also have friends who started out this way but couldn't continue because their children rebelled! I suspect that if structured education works within a family it's quite likely to be because it suits the child. I'm sure there are occasions where the parents dominate the children and decide that they will follow a structured approach no matter what the child wants, but I have not met these families and suspect they are in the minority! But maybe I'm fooling myself or have mixed in the wrong circles?

  20. Julie,


    The definitions of AE (and of its opposite, for which I've not been able to find a good name, as none seem to describe quite how we've HE'd) are constantly changing. Over the last 14 yers I've seen dozens of definitions of AE by AE'ers.

    Years ago, we'd have been called 'structured' HE'ers. But we never felt terribly 'structured'. I thought we were pretty easy-going and flexible, inclined to follow the children's interests and we always valued the informal learning as much as the more formal stuff we did.

    Yet, we were *always* condemned by AE'ing friends as 'structured', 'coercive' and 'authoritarian' because we tended to use bits of various curriculum.

    It depresses me to see HE'ers at eachother's throats because we've chosen different ways of fulfilling our responsibilities as HE'ers.

    Sometimes, people become less 'structured', for want of a better word, in their approach as they gain confidence as HE'ers, but sometimes, like us, they become more 'structured'. (Hate that word.)

    What it all comes down to for me is that there IS no one right way to HE. If we are actually helping our children towards where they want to get to, then what the journey looks like is irrelevant.

    Mrs Anon

  21. Presumably so designated, Mrs. Anon, in order to distance yourself from some of the less articulate and on occasion frankly mad individuals who post simply as Anonymous?

  22. Yes. No relation.

    Mrs Anon

  23. Mrs Anon, you can add your name to the top of your message, replacing Anonymous (if you wish!), by selecting the Name/URL option from the drop down list. You can just fill in the top box for Name and ignore the URL box.

  24. As a parent who uses the AE approach and is another different "anon". My children are all AE.
    We have never "sat down" to lessons, if they want to write, they write, if they want to do mathematics (not the dreadful excuse for maths that is used these days) we do that instead. This AE approach has left us with an 11 yr old studying for an IGCSE in Biology and another in English Literature.
    I have a 5 yr old son who can recite his multiplication tables backwards as and when he desires and who can name every breed of pig this side of the UK.

    My other son has absolutely no interest in any formal work, his only interest is cooking and army to the point where he can't wait for the next 7 years to go past so he can sign up to the RLC as an Army Chef. Everything else in his life is disciplined and done to a strict timetable.

    How would a school deal with that system when even the LA can't understand how 3 children could be so different and learn in totally different ways? How can a LA judge the suitability of a child's education when they send out people who have no idea what an IGCSE is or the study involved with it?
    How can they judge an education system that is not curriculum based?
    Answer? They can't.

    I will accept a visit from the LA, when they are fully trained in all aspects of home education and it's methods (whether formal, steiner, montessori or other child led methods) and actually have a clue about the law!

  25. Hello anon with 3 (just to distinguish you!) - I would like to ask you a few questions - BUT I don't want you (or anyone else) to see them as criticism. One of the main complaints levelled at Badman is that he just doesn't "get" home education...and although I am no Badman supporter, I am not really sure that I understand AE either.... I can fully grasp choice but how do you marry that with the view that a child can never have an understanding of all the implications of his choices because of the very nature of childhood? So taking your middle son for example...he may know what he likes and what he wants to do, but can he fully understand that by not choosing to do any formal work he is perhaps limiting his own choices later? I have to admit here is that what I assume you mean by not "doing formal work" is possibly not the same as what you mean, but (to make it hypothetical) ...if a child doesn't choose to read and write and do basic maths, he is limiting the opportunities he has later... say he wants then to become a doctor?
    Now I know that especially today educational opportunity is on offer to adults - but it is likely that even if an adult decides to work towards a medicine career in their twenties they will find it difficult and time consuming and may conflict with both the desire for family life and the necessity of earning a living. I have no idea what my younger children ( now all teens) will choose to do, but I sort of consider it my duty to give them the opportunity to be as well educated as they can be...because that education may at times be challenging or even boring...but it will open doors.
    I do know families who would consider themselves AEers - but many seem to either have children who choose to do some formal learning or they have a sort of barrier below which they won't go - ie a child must read, for example.

    I do hope you see that I am trying to understand rather than condemn...thanks!

  26. Julie said,
    "I can fully grasp choice but how do you marry that with the view that a child can never have an understanding of all the implications of his choices because of the very nature of childhood?"

    Can we fully grasp the implications of the choices made when the curriculum is designed for school children? How can the designers know what children are going to need to know in future, just look at the explosion in computer use that was not foreseen and catered for. I suspect the most important thing for children to learn is how to learn and autonomous education achieves this in my experience (and obviously this can also be achieved in other ways).

    "if a child doesn't choose to read and write and do basic maths, he is limiting the opportunities he has later... say he wants then to become a doctor?"

    A few, sometimes unconnected, points. Summerhill School does not enforce literacy and numeracy and (from memory) have only had one person leave their school unable to read and I believe he went into a practical job such as forestry. The majority of autonomously educated children will see the benefits of and need for literacy and numeracy in a modern world in plenty of time to learn it before compulsory education ends. As I've mentioned before, the 1 in 5 adults who are not functionally literate in the UK today match the number of late readers observed by Alan Thomas in his research into informal learning. And brain development research suggests that important changes related to abstract thinking happen during adolescence. It seem possible to me that some people 'need' to learn to read late and school fails these children (like my child's school friend who learnt to read at home from computer games at 12).

    Becoming a doctor - if a child is that uninterested in academic work, how likely is it that they will want to become a doctor with all the academic work that involves? If they are that uninterested in academic work, how would they have faired at school or following a structured approach at home? Do you think that someone who has no interest in academic work is likely to gain the excellent academic qualifications necessary anywhere?

    Also, it is possible for someone not to (for example) read until they are 13 but go on to gain GCSEs etc. at age 16 or younger. I have seen this happen. I don't think gaining the qualifications a little later than others would necessarily limit your future, even Oxbridge students take gap years. I recall hearing an interview on the radio a few years back with a doctor who didn't learn to read until they were 13 and he went to school (the program was about adult literacy).

  27. Whoops, ran into the character limit!

    Julie said,
    "I have no idea what my younger children ( now all teens) will choose to do, but I sort of consider it my duty to give them the opportunity to be as well educated as they can be...because that education may at times be challenging or even boring...but it will open doors."

    This is a concern I have had but problems have not materialised. So far they have been able to pursue their preferred career paths without any problems, though they are not all there yet, I am still officially a home educator with children under 16.

    "I do know families who would consider themselves AEers - but many seem to either have children who choose to do some formal learning"

    Yes, autonomous education does not rule out formal learning. In fact, if your child wants to follow a structured approach and the parent refuses, they are not autonomous home educators! All of my children have chosen structured approaches to learning various things over the years to varying extents.

    "or they have a sort of barrier below which they won't go - ie a child must read, for example."

    Yes, the majority of home educators use a mixture of structured and informal learning. I personally wouldn't call them autonomous educators as the definition of autonomy is self-direction. I suppose if you allow self-direction for the afternoons and follow a structured approach in the mornings (quite a common approach in my experience), you could call yourself a semi-autonomous home educator?

    "I do hope you see that I am trying to understand rather than condemn...thanks!"

    Thanks for 'listening'! Clear as fog?

  28. I never said my middle son had no interest in reading/writing/mathematics, I said he was not into "formal" learning.
    We don't sit down with textbooks, work books etc. His learning comes from what is around him. We may not sit down reciting times tables or doing number squares or however children are taught these days, but he does know how to consert imperial to metric and his weights and measures.
    He also knows how to read and write, otherwise how could he follow a recipe?
    These are things he has learnt as a natural progression of his interests along with how to butcher a pig and how to skin a rabbit. Far more expereince of biology than your average first year medical student. I challenge any 9 year old to be able to tell you let alone demonstrate the finer points of butchering. (Oh and I happen to be a vegetarian)
    I believe some commentators here may be blinkered into what education is. Education should be a joy to recieve, not something thrust up us with dusty books and computer programmes. Formal learning is what I associate with schooling. We don't do schooling, we do education but I have 3 literate children who can all do mathematics way beyond their "key stage".
    2 of them have never seen the inside of a school building.

    I'll let you into a little secret. I never went to school after the age of 7. I did no "formal" schooling. I did my GCSE's and passed 10. I did my A-levels and passed 5 in total. This was in the early 1990s. I worked in extremely unsatisfactory jobs as financially I could not go to university despite being offered a place at Oxford with a bursery. I am now self-employed while educating my 3 children and caring for my husband who was severely disabled after an accident.
    Looking at the recommendations of the Badman report and talking to people I know who work in education, disability would be one of the "other reasons" a family would not be allowed to home educate. Why? Would they discriminate against a teacher in a wheelchair?
    I had no interest in university, I still have no interest in university. My daughter is the only one so far to show any university interest, to study equine science. Something she doesn't really need to go to college/uni for as she already has a job waiting for her at a stables once she reaches 16, if she chooses.
    I do wonder at this obsession with university, I would be happy if my children turned round and told me they wanted to be street sweepers. Is it really the children that want to go to university or is it pressure from the parents?

    Can I ask, if you were to educate your child, either at home or through school (private or state), and they got their GCSEs or diplomas
    or whatever, what would you do if they turned round and said...I don't want to be a doctor, I want to work on the bins? Which, from experience, happens a lot to middle class families these days.
    Surely the happiness of the child takes presidence over the ambitions of the parents?

    Anon with 3

  29. Hi Anon with 3, have any of your children chosen to work through a textbook or follow a correspondence course, for instance? We are fully autonomous and ours have chosen these types of approaches occasionally, one of mine is working through the Toe by Toe phonics reading scheme at the moment. Would you refuse to help with this kind of approach, suggest alternatives or go along with their request for as long as they wanted?

    Your 9 year old sounds very like one of my children who stores animal heads (usually road kill and he has been given some by the local animal rescue centre) in a freezer in his room over the winter so that he can put them out for insects to clean during the summer for his skull collection. He can also skin animals, keeps several as pets and never needs nagging to keep them clean, their enclosures and his room are spotless!

  30. Hi, Anon with 3 again, Thanks for replying; I was trying to explain that I couldn't tell exactly what you meant by "no formal schooling" - limitations of an internet conversation! I was trying to discover a bit more about how what you did worked for your children. I have lost the plot a bit about who you are replying to, but responding to your comment about the value of university....I certainly feel that too many young people go off to university today just because they feel it is expected and often waste time and money by doing so...I cannot grasp any reason why the govt wants 50% of school leavers to go to uni. Not all my children (and the majority I must confess have been educated in school) have chosen the university route - and I am certainly not disappointed in their choices...although I must say that one of them (who was home educated) would have greater career choices open to him if he had at least stuck at college and got some kind of vocational qualification. But that is another and very long story.....

  31. Sharon, I thought we were the only family who collected heads! My wife used to go mad when I would get her to stop the car so that my daughter and I could drag a dead fox or badger into the boot. I would then decapitate this with a spade when we got home and stick the head in the compost heap for the insects to deal with. Our collection of skulls when Simone was eight or nine was like a museum. The only time my wife refused absolutely to co-operate was up on the Norfolk coast when we came across a dead seal....
    The wonders of home education!

  32. That's an interesting reaction, Julie. I have been fascinated to watch the development of squeamishness and disgust in my daughter. As a small child she had no strong feelings about blood, dead things, spiders or anything else. She did not learn these things from me and she has never been bothered by peer pressure. Yet somehow, round about puberty, she began to be silly about spiders, have a horror of dead animals and worryied about keeping clean. In short, she developed a "Yuk" response. Is this genetically coded or what, do you think? It does not seem to kick in with boys at that age.

  33. If you are ever at the Natural History Museum you can book a back room tour (you have to book it on the day and only on certain days so check before you go). You get to see the animals brought back by Darwin, thousands of preserved specimens in jars and cases including the giant squid they have and also the room where they keep the flesh eating beetles they use to clean skeletons. The web cam is here, You can read about the tours here, Maybe a bit late for Simon and Simone but may be of interest to others.

    My son found that the bodies and especially the heads would be taken if he just left them out so he had to put them in a cage. Apparently hedgehogs are partial to skulls and are often the culprits, along with rats and foxes. It seems to work better if they are in the open air so the flies can reach them. Luckily my son does everything so I don't need to get involved! Apologies to any squeamish readers.

  34. Well worth a visit. We did this when the tours started a few years ago. They used the place as the setting for a computer game, with a monster erupting from one of the tanks. Some of the things in the jars look as though they belong in "Alien".

  35. Are you sure you're not an autonomous home educator? LOL

  36. Despite my response I should point out that I do have half a degree in spent my youth doing unmentionable things to animals that were alive at the beginning of the experiment...(nasty things to frogs comes to mind) tolerance of such things (physically let alone morally) has grown a great deal smaller with age....

  37. "It is just slightly irritating when I, who have been home educating for over a decade, am accused by somebody who started eighteen months ago of not being a dedicated and committed enough home educator!"

    People home educting children today have more to lose in the current climate than someone who has just finished home educating their child.

  38. Or more to gain. Recommendation 10 of the Badman Report suggests that home educated children should be able to take examinations free. This proposal alone, if implemented, would have saved me over £1000 in examination fees.

  39. If you prefer money to freedom to education your child in the way you choose then go for it. But, even though we are on a low income, I would not touch it with a barge pole.

  40. Personally, neither would I. But it is still something that might benefit some home educating parents who cannot afford the fees for examinations. There are other things in Badman's report which might improve the lot of home educators; it's not all bad.

  41. It will be good for those who want it *if* it ever happens but it should not limit other peoples choices at the same time.

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