Monday, 30 November 2009

UK home education - the need for new research

Very little research has been conducted on home education in this country. There is a good deal of research relating to home education in the USA, but much of this is largely irrelevant as far as home education in the United Kingdom is concerned. The main reason for this is that the primary motivations for home education are completely different in the two countries. In America, the main reason parents give for choosing to educate their own children is, according to the latest surveys, "Being able to give a child a better education at home than would be received at school." Paula Rothermel analysed the thousand or so responses which she received to a mail-shot in the late nineties. The two most popular reasons for home educating in Britain were given as, "Having close family relationships and being together" and "having freedom and flexibility to do what we want, when we want". In other words, in America the main reason for home educating is education. In this country it is not.

Attempts to carry out research on the subject in this country though, often run into trouble. Ofsted are currently trying to find out about how home educators actually conduct their educational activities and what methods they favour. Most of the questions are fairly innocuous, and yet some parents have taken against the questionnaires to the extent that a boycott is being urged. This is a strange and unfortunate development for two reasons.

In the first place, most parents are only too happy to talk about their children's achievements and academic progress. Just start them off and they will go on interminably about their wretched children. "Janet is taking her maths GCSE two years early, John has been chosen for the rugby team" and much more in a similar vein. Those who do not talk like this are often those whose children are having problems at school. When parents respond to enquiries about how their children are doing by saying, "Oh, don't ask. You know what they're like at that age!" they are generally the ones whose children are not doing well educationally. When home educating parents behave like this and become prickly and defensive about questions, it gives the unfortunate impression that they too are reluctant to talk of their children's achievements for the same reason.

The second reason why it is an unfortunate position to take is that if home education is really successful, by whatever criteria, not just by counting GCSEs, then surely it is in the interests of home educators to publicise it? Why not share the achievements of home educated children? Once it is demonstrated as efficient, this will strengthen the hand of home educating parents when dealing with local authorities. They will be able to point to the evidence and say, "Look, it works! Here is the proof." As I said above, refusing to discuss the subject with either Ofsted, local authorities or anybody else who might be sceptical of the benefits of this method of education, just leads people to suppose that it is not a success or even worse, that there is something to hide
At a time when home education is increasingly being mentioned in newspapers, magazines and even in parliament, I think it frankly mad to refuse all engagement with what might be termed the educational establishment. A good beginning would be a well constructed project designed to look at the long term outcomes for all the home educated children in a single area, something along the lines of Rutter's work on the Isle of Wight. This would give us a strong basis for defending the practice against those who oppose home education. The Ofsted survey of the fifteen local authority areas looks to me very much as though it would be a good start in this direction.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Paula Rothermel and the mystery of the missing methodology!

On November 8th, I posted a short piece about Paula Rothermel's research on home education. I made the point that the assessments of academic ability only involved thirty five children. I also mentioned that of the literacy assessments, only five were conducted under controlled conditions. This information was contained in Dr. Rothermel's PhD thesis, which was to be found on her website. Three days after I posted the piece, the thesis was withdrawn from the website. This is an extraordinary development and I shall explain why.

Practically anybody discussing home education in this country quotes, or at the very least mentions, the research carried out by Paula Rothermel. It is used to substantiate claims such as that working class children taught at home do better than schooled children and that home educated children tend to make better progress in the acquisition of literacy than those who are taught at school. Almost invariably, those talking about this work say that it involved hundreds of children. It is impossible to overstate the significance attached to this work. Here is how it is frequently presented. This bit claims that home educated children are good readers;

Working with the idea of a normal bell curve distribution, we expect to find 16% of children in the top band. Percentages of home-educated children within this score band for literature were as follows:
94% of 6 year olds
77.4% of 7 year olds
73.3% of 8 year olds
82.3% of 10 year olds

It looks impressive until you understand that we are talking about fewer than fifty children who were tested and that only five were actually tested by the researcher herself; the rest of the assessments were sent out by post for the families to do. This information about the methodology is only to found in the original thesis which Paula Rothermel did for her PhD. Now that this has been removed, nobody else can examine in detail just how the work was carried out and the conclusions reached. This is a far from satisfactory state of affairs. The fact that it was removed so promptly after I drew attention to the methodology on this Blog, argues strongly that my criticism was well founded and that this work will not bear close examination. I can see no other reason why it should have been taken from the website.

Another point which those interested in home education should bear in mind is that there was only one piece of research, which was carried out over twelve years ago. All the other papers which one sees bearing Dr. Rothermel's name and presented at various conferences are not new research, but simply extracts and summaries of sections of the PhD thesis. In other words, every single reference to Paula Rothermel's work concerns only those same handful of children twelve years ago; there has been nothing since then.

I think it worth looking hard at this matter for the simple reason that so much has been made of this research. It has been quoted everywhere and the most extravagant conclusions drawn from the flimsiest evidence imaginable. If the methodology used in this work does not stand scrutiny, and the fact that Paula Rothermel pulled it from her site soon after I posted my piece suggests that this might well be so, then the foundation for much of what is routinely claimed about the benefits of home education in Britain could be called into question.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Special interest groups

There are a lot of good things about living in a representative democracy such as we have in this country and there are some bad things. A good thing is that we actually get a chance every few years to change the government. In practice, this means choosing between Labour and Conservative of course. We do not directly make the laws, we elect representatives to do it on our behalf. These are our MPs. By and large, the system works pretty well. It works at least as well as any other method and better than most, although it has its drawbacks. One of these is that it is easy for minority groups to get trampled down.

Sometimes governments decide to be tough on some minority or other deliberately, because it will be popular with everybody else and the actions they take distract people from the failure of the government in other areas. Cracking down on asylum seekers or benefit cheats are an example of this. It can serve to make your government look tough and determined to look after the interests of the ordinary citizen. It can also grab the headlines and make the voters forget how you are screwing up the economy or launching illegal wars. Banning hunting or the keeping of certain breeds of dog were also measures of this sort. Almost always, before they act in this way, the government of the day finds out how the masses will view this attack on a small, special interest group. The idea is to gain votes, not lose them!

Some of these attacks on small groups are greeted with wide approval. The ban on hunting was very popular with people living in the cities. Often, the members of the special interest group under attack are baffled by the public reaction. They are so used to belonging to this group and identify so closely with its aims and purposes, that they are honestly surprised to hear that many people do not like what they are doing and think it should be stopped. However, governments are quite clever at this sort of thing. In many cases, whatever their motives, and these are often cynical and populist, the end results of their clamping down on some group or other do tend towards the common good. This is how many people, including I am guessing many people who read this Blog, felt about the law on fox hunting.

Which brings us neatly to home education and the Children, Schools and Families Bill. There are two important points to consider here. Firstly, the present administration is onto a winner with this. Examining teachers' fitness to do their job regularly is likely to play very well with the electorate. So are pledges to raise educational standards in general. So to are action on safeguarding concerns about children taught at home. Now I have made it fairly plain I think that I do not believe that this is really a valid point at all, but that does not matter in the slightest. Everybody else send their kids to school and there is bound to be a certain amount of suspicion attached to those who don't. If they are making sure that schools and teachers are up to scratch, then why not check out those parents who are teaching their kids at the same time? Sounds good to Joe Public. When you combine this with spurious safeguarding fears, it becomes a classic case of working up a fear about the safety of kiddies and old folk, always a winner with voters.

Just as those who went hunting foxes did not really see the public mood, so too home educators appear to be a little out of touch. This is in the nature of special interest groups in any case; they assume everybody understands and shares their concerns. The Badman review of elective home education was very big news for home educators, for instance, but 99% of the public had not even heard of it. The Queen's speech was anxiously awaited to see what she would have to say on the subject of home education, but the newspapers and television did not bother overmuch with that aspect; it didn't matter to most people. Most coverage of the Children, Schools and Families Bill made no mention at all of the new regulations regarding home education. It was of little interest.

I suppose that I am observing this developing situation with a certain amount of detachment and wish that home educating parents would be a little more accommodating to local authorities. I suspect that if the bill does get passed before June, parents are going to find a system imposed upon that that they will have had no part in shaping. Many local authorities are prepared to work with home educators towards a new regimen, but the feeling seems to be that if everybody flatly rejects change, then it simply will not happen. I find this unduly optimistic.

A way forward?

I have been thinking today about the seemingly implacable hostility that exists between certain home educating parents and their local authorities. Without considering the rights and wrongs of the case, because I have not the slightest doubt that there are faults on both sides, I was wondering if there is any way of finding a compromise.

It is becoming increasingly likely that the Children, Schools and Families Bill will be passed before the next general election. There may be one or two MPs and Lords who are prepared for various reasons to oppose this measure and help try to prevent it reaching the Statute Book, but I would not think that they will be able to do this. A bill full of provisions designed to crack down on inefficient schools and useless teachers is not likely to face widespread opposition in either the Lords or Commons. Most of our legislature will hardly notice the few paragraphs which introduce registration and monitoring of home educators. Those who do spot them will probably approve.

Let us assume for a moment the bill actually becomes law. I am well aware that many parents are determined not to co-operate with local authority officers on various aspects of it. Is there room for meeting half way though? On the subject of registration, this is more or less a done deal. When ContactPoint is switched on, any child who has a blank field for "Educational Setting" will be receiving a letter from her local authority making enquiries. This will be de facto registration in itself. But what about the requirement for a statement of educational intent and so on?

I think I am right in saying that hardly any parents object to sending their local authority an educational philosophy. It seem to be a pretty standard response to enquiries and often used as a way to fend off a visit. It seems possible that this will not be considered sufficient in the future. An awful lot of parents are very much opposed to providing a curriculum, claiming that this would destroy the whole basis of autonomous education. Without going into the rights and wrongs of this position, is there a way that something more than an educational philosophy could be put together, which was a little more detailed as regards what the education was intended to provide for the child? Something less than a curriculum, certainly, but a good deal more than the sort of vague waffle which some parents currently submit to their LA? How far would parents be prepared to go in order to accommodate their local authority and avoid conflict on this particular matter?

At the moment, a lot of parents, perhaps the majority, seem to be against visits. I say the majority, because of course all those who are not at the moment known to their local authority presumably do not want visits. According to most estimates, these are at least as numerous as the parents who are known to local authorities. I can see that there will be trouble if local authority officers march into such homes and demand that little Johnny demonstrate that he knows his multiplication tables or has read Great Expectations . However, they will want to see the child and probably talk to him. What sort of model for these encounters would satisfy home educating parents? Assuming that is, that non-compliance is not an option and that a blanket refusal to engage with the LA might lead to court? Have parents any idea how this conflict could be resolved in a way which would satisfy both themselves and their local authorities?

I cannot think that an adversarial approach to these new regulations will benefit anybody, least of all the children concerned. If we take as given that change is coming and that home education in this country will be regulated and governed for the first time by laws which explicitly recognise its existence, then the only question remaining is how parents adapt to those laws and help mould the local authority practice. I do not wish to be a Cassandra, but I can easily see that if home educating parents launch a campaign of non-cooperation, this will ultimately lead to court proceedings and trauma for children who have been withdrawn from school for bullying. I don't think this will be to anybody's advantage.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Compulsory education

I have been reading the Newcastle Report, a Royal Commission set up in 1858 in order to examine and report on the state of education in Britain. Some of its findings and recommendations are surprising, particularly when you bear in mind that only ten years later compulsory education was introduced in this country. The Newcastle Report had this to say on the subject;

"Any universal compulsory system appears to us neither attainable nor desirable. An attempt to replace an independent system of education with a compulsory system, managed by the Government, would be met by objections, both religious and political."

Today most people view school as such a natural and integral part of modern life that it seems incredible that a Royal Commission could have come down so firmly against the idea of compulsory education. Interestingly, the words that they used to dismiss the idea could be used to today by the opponents of the regulations about home education contained in the Children, Schools and Families Bill. What would be the practical results if the element of compulsion were to be wholly removed from education? I suppose that we and our children are in general so used to the concept of kids having to go to school or at the very least be educated, that it would throw everyone into confusion at first!

Would parents continue to send their children to school if compulsory education were abolished? Probably they would. An awful lot of the parents to whom one talks look forward to the day that their children will be going to school. many of them dislike the school holidays, especially the long Summer holiday. There is also the popular belief that children have to go to school to learn. Most parents would be frightened of the consequences of a child not being taught at school. Indeed, we know this to be true, because of course parents do not have to send their children to school as things currently stand. A very tiny minority fail to do so. School is popular with parents.

School is also, by and large, popular with the children themselves. They like the opportunity to get away from their parents, to meet their friends and so on. I believe that some of them even learn there!

In other words, despite the fact that school is not compulsory and never has been, the overwhelming majority of parents and children seem to like it just fine. At a guess, the situation would not change at all if a new law was passed which abolished the compulsory element from education altogether. Things would carry on just as they do now.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

What motivates local authorities?

A couple of days ago, I looked at the idea that there might be a plan to destroy home education by burdening parents with so many restrictions and regulations as eventually to stifle it entirely. I concluded and most people I think agreed, that there was no such overall plan, more a number of separate trends which all tended to make life difficult, particularly for autonomously educating parents. Today, I want to look at a similar point. Why do local authorities wish to interfere in the matter at all? Why can't they just leave home educators to get on with it?

Well, why do local authorities, some more than others, actually fuss about home education? A number of possibilities suggest themselves. One is that this is just busybodying for the sake of it. Another explanation would be that local authorities wish to promote schools as the only appropriate places for educating children; that they are opposed on principle to home education. A third possibility is that they genuinely care about home educated children and worry that they are either at hazard or are not receiving a good education. Let us look at these hypotheses in turn.

There is no doubt at all that local authorities like to poke their nose in other people's business. They do it all the time. Whether it is how we are disposing of our rubbish or the height of out hedges, it seems that the council are always hovering about ready and willing to interfere. Could it be that this is at the bottom of their interest in home education? Just a mania to regulate for the sake of regulation? If this were the case, then I would expect local authorities to pester all home educating parents with forms and paperwork and generally to make a nuisance of themselves with all home educators. They do not.

Rather, they focus usually on those about whom there are concerns from other agencies, those known to children's social care for example. They make a point often of making early contact with families who withdraw their children from school and about whom the school has expressed unease. A number of local authorities take more interest in uneducated parents who intend to educated their children and also in those who say that they are doing so autonomously. All this looks as though local authorities target those children who, rightly or wrongly, they feel to be at risk of failing educationally or to be at some sort of risk for reasons unconnected with home education. In other words, it does not look as though they are determined to crack down on home education as such, but only specific groups of home educators.

What of the idea that local authorities see school as the best and most appropriate place for children to be educated? Again, the evidence for this is weak. Even LAs where some parents have had problems, seem quite happy for certain parents to home educate. Most local authorities now have a bit about home education on their websites and are happy to provide parents with information about this option. There is no feeling that home education as such is a cause for concern. The fact that so few home educating parents are made the subject of School Attendance Orders also argues strongly for the idea that most local authorities do not have a problem with home education as such. Only perhaps with certain types of home education or particular groups.

Lastly, what of the possibility that local authorities act as they do out of genuine worries about some home educated children? Here, the evidence is stronger. Some militant autonomous educators complain of local authorities taking actions which are, strictly speaking, ultra vires. For instance, they may urge parents to follow a curriculum, ask for a plan of work, insist on home visits and so on. I cannot offhand think of any reason for such behaviour other than that they are concerned about a number of particular children being taught at home. The concern may be misplaced. They may be wrong to feel anxious about children whose parents are opposed on principle to teaching them or deciding what their children should learn. It is however these families that many LAs focus upon. This makes it look as though the officers in these authorities are targetting those very children who they feel will not thrive academically through home education. In short, they do so because they are anxious about the welfare of these children. It is this which has motivated them to appeal for stricter regulation of home education. They may be wrong, but they have no motive more sinister than the desire to protect some of the most vulnerable members of society - our children.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Finding a curriculum

I have been exploring the QCA website, further to the suggestion by the DCSF that parents would find easy to download curricula there. Actually, some of this stuff for primary pupils is not that bad and could probably be adapted fairly easily by parents, should they wish to do so. First, one must pass the portal of the National Curriculum site though, which begins with the exhortation;

The curriculum should be treasured. There should be real pride in our curriculum: the learning that the nation has decided to set before its young. Teachers, parents, employers, the media and the public should all see the curriculum as something to embrace, support and celebrate. Most of all, young people should relish the opportunity for discovery and achievement that the curriculum offers.

This is a bit creepy! Who are they to be instructing the media what they should embrace and celebrate? It puts me in mind of Star Wars and embracing the dark side. However, some of the actual content is OK. For instance in Key Stage 1 science, there is stuff like this;

Life processes
1 Pupils should be taught:
a the differences between things that are living and things that have never
been alive
b that animals, including humans, move, feed, grow, use their senses and
c to relate life processes to animals and plants found in the local environment.
Humans and other animals
2 Pupils should be taught:
a to recognise and compare the main external parts of the bodies of humans
and other animals
b that humans and other animals need food and water to stay alive
c that taking exercise and eating the right types and amounts of food help
humans to keep healthy
d about the role of drugs as medicines
e how to treat animals with care and sensitivity
f that humans and other animals can produce offspring and that these
offspring grow into adults
g about the senses that enable humans and other animals to be aware
of the world around them.

This is the kind of thing that children should probably be knowing at that age and it is no bad idea to have a plan to work to, even if it is not rigidly adhered to. Anybody working with a young child could do a lot worse than to use this section of the National Curriculum as a rough guide. I am not so sure about religion; this is an entirely personal matter. Similarly music and PE. As long as a child is getting exercise and being exposed to different styles of music, I would think that enough. But to teach according to a general framework in science, history and mathematics seems to me a sound scheme.

Of course, the National Curriculum is not the only curriculum that parents could use, but the basic idea of having some notion of what the child will cover over the next year or so is a pretty sensible one. The only problem might come if this curriculum became a type of strait-jacket, preventing one from being spontaneous and going off in unexpected directions. This has of course nothing at all to do with examinations or testing. It is good for children to think about life and what it means to be alive, purely for the sake of it. A curriculum really acts as an aide-memoire, reminding one of what needs to be covered.

I cannot make out when I see people denouncing the National Curriculum, whether they are dissatisfied with this particular curriculum or if there is some deep seated objection to all curricula. If the former, then I can sympathise. The National Curriculum needs drastic pruning and revision. But if the objection is a more general one against any sort of curriculum or plan of study, then I confess myself puzzled. A curriculum is a bit like a map, which shows the broad territory one hopes to traverse. It should not tell you precisely which route you will take, only the area that you will be travelling. As such, it is quite invaluable for those teaching their own child. I hope that the DCSF will issue more detailed instructions regarding curricula, including some which are not connected with the National Curriculum.

Monday, 23 November 2009

A plot to destroy home education in this country?

Ever since Graham Badman's review of elective home education was launched in January, suggestions have been made that it was all part of a sinister and deeply laid plot, having as its ultimate aim the abolition of home education in this country. The publication of the Children, Schools and Families Bill, which contains draft regulations relating to home education, seems to have provoked even normally rational people into wild speculations upon the eventual outcome for home educators if things carry on like this. So let us bring this idea out into the open and examine it carefully to see if there might be any substance in the notion that certain members of the government actually hope to make home education impossible in England and Wales.

The first question we must ask is that classic enquiry when a suspected crime has occurred; cui bono? Who benefits from this thing? Well who would benefit if home education stopped being a viable option for parents in this country? In order to answer that, we might begin by asking ourselves what the practical consequences would be of the abolition of home education.

With schools currently at bursting point, the immediate result of something like 80,000 extra children suddenly being registered at school would be a demand for somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 new teachers. (Assuming roughly one teacher per thirty new pupils.) In the long term, fifty or sixty new schools would need to be built to accommodate all these pupils; so the first beneficiary might be the teaching profession. New jobs, new schools and an acknowledgement that education is a state monopoly, not something any Tom, Dick or Harry can just do in their kitchens whenever they feel like it! This is an interesting hypothesis, but it does not really hold water.

The new regulations regarding home education are contained in the Children, School and Families Bill. They are only a small part of it. Much is taken up with various initiatives designed to raise standards in schools. If the teaching profession were behind this new bill, and I have to say that I don't really buy into the idea of a teachers lobby forcing the government's hand, then it is surprising that so many of the bill's provisions are designed to make life more difficult for teachers. For example, the idea that teachers will need in to be re-examined every few years to see if they are still fit to teach. Why on earth would teachers wish to force measures like this onto the Statute Book? I'm not sure either how keen I would be as a teacher to have a load of home educated children suddenly foisted off on me. All those weird parents causing trouble and making complaints at every touch and turn! I would have thought that most teachers could do without the aggravation. So I must conclude that if there really is a plot, then teachers are not at the back of it.

Who else might be implicated? Could it be that the government, or even just an individual member of the cabinet like Ed Balls, is dead set on getting rid of home education? What would the government get out of it? How would they benefit? I suppose that it could serve to make them look as though they were very concerned about vulnerable children and determined to take robust steps to protect them. The only problem here is that most of the electorate have not even noticed that home education is facing new controls. If it was done as a publicity stunt, then I would have expected to see a little more publicity associated with it. In the event, it has been simply slipped past in a few obscure pages of the Children, Schools and Families Bill. Hardly anybody apart from home educating parents themselves even know that it has happened. For that reason, I think we can acquit the government of playing to the gallery on the child protection issue. They have not drawn enough attention to what they are doing for that to be the case.

What other culprits could be in the frame for this? It is hard to identify any one group or even a combination of groups who would benefit enough from the destruction of home education to make it worth their while. The medical profession? Big Pharma? Psychiatrists? The military-industrial complex? Area 51? I am quite open to hearing any suggestions as to who or what could be behind a plan to get rid of home education in Britain.

In the meantime, I shall continue to assume that the stated aim is the true one; to ensure that children withdrawn from school are in fact educated at home. I am quite prepared to believe that many parents disagree violently with Graham Badman, Ed Balls and many of the officers working for local authorities. I am also able to accept that people like Badman and Balls might be mistaken in what they think about home education and wrongheaded in their whole approach. I do not happen to believe personally that this is the case, but I am certainly open to the possibility that they, and of course me, are quite wrong. However, unless strong and convincing evidence emerges, I shall continue to think that they are actually acting honestly and that they have the best interests of children at heart.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

A short, word-processed document......

I have been looking into the question of what sort of plan of education the local authorities will be expecting, always assuming the Children, Schools and Families Bill becomes law. The information on this, such as it is, is contained in the Impact Assessment published by the DCSF. Unfortunately, this document itself was apparently written by a particularly crafty and dishonest weasel. I say this for several reasons.

Firstly, have a look at this. After some waffle about the use of curricula and how good it would be if home educators could be persuaded to use them, the author of the Impact assessment has this to say;

"We assume that with this new legislation this pupils will progress from obtaining 1 -4 A*-C to 5 + A*-C GCSEs. In this case, the lifetime returns amount to £88,500 for each child. Assuming that 46.8% of these children achieve this level, the total benefits of the proposal is £99.5m for those affected in the first year."

I am always suspicious of such precise percentages, especially when they are to be "assumed". Why assume 46.8%? Why not 47% or even 50%? Why exactly 46.8%? The answer is revealing. Observe if you will that if we assume 46.8% of children now get five good GCSEs then the financial benefits in the first year will be £99.5m. Earlier in the Impact Assessment we are told that the costs in the first year are likely to be;

"Costs in the first year are estimated to be between £20 million and £99 million."

The upper limit of £99m was chosen for the same reason that shops would rather price a television at £99.99 instead of £100. It looks so much less. So in order to show that the whole scheme will be effectively self-financing, the benefits must be just a shade over the initial outlay. What a coincidence. It will cost £99m in the first year, but the financial benefits will be £99.5m! What has actually happened, and I won't weary anybody with the detailed calculations, is that the person writing this has been told to demonstrate how it will all cost nothing at all in the long run. He has added half a million to the initial years costs and then reverse-engineered the figures back from this to calculate how many kids would need to get five good GCSEs to make it all worthwhile. Hence that eerily exact figure. You have got to admire the nerve of somebody who can be so cunning.

To return to the plan of education that parents will be required to submit. The same person who made those clever calculations earlier says;

"we have not yet defined the content or rigour of a "statement of education", but it is likely to be a short, word-processed document. Exemplar curricula which parents could use successfully are freely available from the DCSF and QCA websites".

This is a barefaced and categorical lie. You will not find "curricula" on either the QCA or DCSF sites. Instead, you will find material relating to only one single curriculum. Which curriculum is that? Anybody? Gentleman in the back row? Yes sir, that's right. The National Curriculum. Regular readers of this column will know that I am not a fan of the National Curriculum. It is very big, unwieldy and bloated. It is also massively prescriptive, covering in great detail all that must be covered in every aspect of every subject. This is not the only objection to the idea of parents being directed to the DCSF and QCA sites in search of a curriculum for their children.
Anybody looking there will indeed find a lot of material, but it is in the main designed for teachers instructing a classroom full of children. The various schemes of work and lesson plans would be utterly useless and irrelevant for any home educator. As God he knows, I was the most meticulously structured home educator in the world, but even I would have found no use for such detailed instructions. I do not believe for a moment that any parent would be able to make use of them. Except of course, unless you just wanted a load of impressive stuff to show the local authority officer when she called. In that case, a cut and paste job from those sites would be great.

The reason that I find this all so irritating is that I am a great believer in a curriculum for the home educating parents. Nothing fancy, just the basics and some rough idea of what might be covered at different ages. What will in fact happen from all this is that parents will end up producing some sort of cobbled together nonsense from these two sites and presenting it as their "curriculum". Since their kids will not be taking the SATS, there will be no way to verify any of the alleged outcomes and the whole thing is likely to become an exercise in deception. This is a complete waste of time for all concerned and will not benefit the children in the slightest degree.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

What will a change in the law mean for home educators?

The short answer to the above question is that nobody knows. In the first place, we have no idea what the regulations will look like by the time they have been subjected to various amendments as the Bill passes through both houses. Either house might change the wording, leave out different passages and so on. Once this is done and if it receives Royal Assent, then it will become law. This is where the real excitement begins. Because however clear the provisions of the act are, the courts will end up being called to rule upon it. Does it conflict with any existing laws? Is it in conflict with European law? Human Rights? Is there a deep principle at stake?

We have to bear in mind that although we all believe that the words of the 1944 Education Act that talked of "Either by regular attendance or otherwise" were actually the foundation of our right to home educate, for years these same words were taken by local education authorities as meaning precisely the opposite; in other words that they meant that parents could not teach their own children at home. It was not until people like Joy Baker challenged the Act in the courts that this interpretation by local authorities was ruled to be wrong. Exactly the same thing will happen with any new law. Some local authority will look at specific phrases and say, "Well that's quite clear". A parent will interpret the words in a different way and the case will end up in court and then a magistrate will have to decide on the matter. Often such cases end up at the Crown Court or higher and the final ruling can be quite unexpected.

It is next door to impossible, just by looking at the original words of an act to guess how they will be interpreted in the courts. As I say, today we look at those few words from the 1944 Act and they seem so obviously to give us the right to teach our children at home. Yet for years, those same words were thought to make home education illegal! There is a long way to go yet before we need to get anxious and worked up about this.

Oh, no, it's an eight hour interrogation!

Over on the HE-UK and EO lists there is much anxiety about the possibility of an eight hour visit from the local authority. This is because when the DCSF were working out the costings, they allowed for eight hours of time spent on a visit. They have to do it this way, so that they can work out the total cost of the enterprise. So some time will be spent in preparing for the visit and travelling there and back. More time will be spent by administrative staff in setting up the meeting and working out which lucky parent's turn it is to be so favoured. Writing up the notes from the visit and turning them into a professional looking report will take time. So will filing the report and forwarding annual returns to the DCSF. For example when we had visits, the woman had to travel from Colchester to the edge of London. She allowed two hour travel time just to start off with.

I am astounded that anybody could possibly imagine that a local authority officer would be arriving at the house at nine in the morning and setting up shop until five in the afternoon! I was always enthusiastic about talking about my daughter's education, but even I would have found conversation flagging after the first hour or two.

Actually, the notes which talk about this 1X8 hours business look as though they have been put together by some complete bloody fools. For instance they say;

"LAs tell us that home educators who avoid interaction with the local authority tend to be providing inferior education"

Now how on earth could the local authority know this if they were not having any contact with a family? More research needed there, I fancy. Similarly, they repeat this lame allegation;

"We do know, however, that post compulsory education, home educated young people are 4 times more likely not to be in education, employment or training than other young people."

All that this means is that the young people who have been home educated are not registered at a college or sixth form, nor are they working or in training. Their home education is probably just continuing between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, but as far as the local authority is concerned, that makes them a NEET!

Friday, 20 November 2009

More good news for autonomous home educators

There can be few spectacles less attractive than that of a man crowing, "I told you so, you idiots!" Fortunately, I am possessed of sufficient self control that I shall not be yielding to this enormous temptation. Ever since Graham Badman's report was published, excitable people have been claiming that all his recommendations would become law. There was, realistically, little chance for many of them. Badman is not a lawyer and many of his idea were hopelessly impractical, however desirable they might have been. I am surprised that others could not see this. On September 16th I posted a piece asking what changes in the law were likely. I concluded it by saying;

"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."

A number of individuals responded indignantly, telling me in effect that I did not know what I was talking about. I am saying this for a reason, not just as an act of odious and smug self-congratulation for my prescience, (although no doubt there is an element of that). Exactly the same thing is now happening again. People are reading the new guidelines and regulations and imagining that every jot and tittle will be as fixed and immutable as the laws of the Medes and Persians. It is not so.
Here is an example of the sort of thing which will provide a loophole;

Monitoring provision of home education to registered children
A local authority in England shall make arrangements with a view to
ascertaining, so far as is reasonably practicable—
whether the education provided to a child whose details are
entered on their home education register is suitable;"

At once, we focus upon those words, "so far as is reasonably practicable". In other words, there will not be an absolute duty on the local authority at all, only, "so far as is reasonably practicable". What will this mean? Perhaps families who do not co-operate fully with providing a statement of what they intend over the coming year will mean that it is not reasonably practicable to ascertain if their provision is suitable. Possibly awkward customers will not be able to be dealt with for the same reason. At the very least, we know that the local authority has a get out clause which will enable them to slacken off if they feel like it.
Here is another interesting bit;

Arrangements made by an authority under this section shall include
arrangements made with a view to their—
holding at least one meeting with the child during the
registration period;"

Note that the law will not state unequivocally that local authorities must meet the child. Rather, they will make arrangements "with a view to" doing so. When laws are framed in this wooly way, there is usually a reason for it. After all, there was nothing to prevent the blunt statement, "The authority will hold at least one meeting with the child".

All the signs are that these regulations have been carefully worded so as to allow the local authorities plenty of space to manoeuvre and not enforce them too rigorously. Add to that the fact that the old School Attendance Order will remain as the primary tool for getting children back to school and that this must be enforced by a court and I can see that very few, if any, home educated children will in the end be forced unwillingly to school.

Staying below the radar

I have no particular desire to encourage any parents to frustrate the provisions of the proposed Children, Schools and Families Bill. I cannot however refrain from pointing out that the situation for those who wish to home educate without notifying their local authority remains completely unchanged. The guidance to the new regulations says;

"The new section requires a local authority in England to make arrangements to identify two categories of children of compulsory school age in their area. The first category is that consisting of children who are not home-educated, are not registered pupils at a school, and are not receiving suitable education provided under section 19 of the EA 1996 (alternative provision). Children within this category will be those who are not receiving any education at all, or who are receiving education under section 19 that for some reason is not suitable. The second category is that consisting of home-educated children who are not on the authority’s home education register. "

In other words, all the responsibility for tracking down and registering home educated children rests solely and completely with the local authorities. I cannot think that it will prove beyond the wit of some to evade notice, although with ContactPoint this will prove increasingly difficult. The question of why any parent would be so desperately anxious to avoid meeting with an officer from the local authority is another question entirely........

Thursday, 19 November 2009

The new law - fears and realities

Ever since the publication of the Badman Report in the Summer, there has been great anxiety on the part of some home educating parent as to what changes there will be in the law relating to home education. Will children be interrogated alone? Will the local authority be given right of entry to our homes? Will they try and impose the National Curriculum of home educators?
Well the draft regulations have now been published and pretty tame they are too. What difference will they make to most home educators? None at all. Let us look at the original fears and then see how the law as set out in the Children, Schools and Families Bill will actually work.

Fear No. 1 Children will be interviewed without the parents being present.


"Arrangements made under subsection (3) may, unless the child or a

parent of the child objects, provide for a meeting with the child at

which no parent of the child or other person providing education to

the child is present."

In other words, meetings without the parents will only take place by agreement with the parents and child.

Fear No. 2 The local authority will have the right to enter our homes.


"visiting, at least once in the registration period, the place (or

at least one of the places) where education is provided to the


This might be the local library, for instance. No mention at all of the home.

Fear No. 3 The definition of a "suitable education" will be tightened up.


"For the purposes of this section a child’s education is suitable if it is
efficient full-time education suitable to—

the child’s age, ability and aptitude, and

any special educational needs the child may have."

The definition of a suitable education is unchanged.

Fear No. 4 Parents who don't notify the local authority may be guilty of a criminal offence


The onus is firmly on the part of the local authority to track down and register children. There are no penalties for not announcing that you are home educating.

I could go on point by point, but I think this will do. Most parents will not even notice the difference. Local authorities will want to meet parents and children, but even that is hedged around with the proviso, "as far as is practical". This will give local authorities leeway not to insist upon it. True, the local authority will have the power to revoke registration if parents do not co-operate, but this does not alter the existing position either. If they revoke registration, then they will have to issue a School Attendance Order and the whole matter will move to the magistrates court. This will give the parents the chance to argue their case. There is nothing to stop LAs from doing this already with unco-operative home educators. I doubt it will become any more frequent.

All in all, this seems a very good outcome for home educating parents. I dare say that some will still manage to engineer confrontations with their local authority, but for the great majority, their minds will be put at rest and they can relax and carry on with their children's education.

No home visits under new law

Well now that the draft details of the new legislation has been published, I should imagine that most home educators, even the autonomous ones, will be breathing a sigh of relief! It will not as widely feared, be a criminal offence to fail to register for home education. The local authority will not even be visiting homes routinely, at least not as long as these parents have the sense that the Lord gave to a goat, anyway. Section 3 d of the new regulations says that the local authority will be;

"visiting, at least once in the registration period, the place (or
at least one of the places) where education is provided to the

What could be better? All that a parent who is determined to avoid having local authority officers in her home needs to do is say that the bulk of the education is taking place in the local library. All that will be necessary is meeting somebody in the library. It is a perfect face saving clause for both sides and must have surely been inserted for that very reason. I shall be making a fuller post later, but in the meantime, it is to be hoped that home educating parents will be content with this hugely watered down version of the Badman recommendations. Seeing children alone is also out if either parent or child object. Another needless anxiety removed.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

A change in the law.....

The two perspectives could hardly be more different. To most people working in the field of education and social care; it is a grotesque anomaly. Getting on for a hundred thousand children about whose education hardly anything is known. Are they passing GCSEs? Nobody knows. What percentage go on to become NEETS? We have no idea. Are they as literate as the general population? Couldn't really say. I mean, it's absurd! It has to be said that this view is probably shared by many ordinary people. On the other side are the parents of the children in question. To them, any attempt to change the law or even ask too many questions about the situation is a gross intrusion into their private life; a flagrant breach of the rights of both parent and child. Outrageous!

The law covering home education is to be found in the 1996 Education Act. The wording of this act in respect of home education was lifted practically intact from the 1944 Education Act. The relevant words, those concerning a suitable education to be obtained, "By regular attendance at school or otherwise", were inserted into the act not to legitimise home education but to allow the upper and middle classes to continue engaging governesses and tutors for their children. It is I think, safe to say that the idea that parents would one day use this section of the act to justify teaching their own children out of school never for a moment crossed the mind of anybody in the legislature. Yet here we are, sixty five years later, and those few words are still the only thing that the law has to say on the subject of home education. In other words, the education of perhaps eighty thousand children is regulated by a couple of chance sentences in an old act of parliament.

Any objective observer would probably agree that with the numbers of children educated out of school rising inexorably, it really is time for a law which specifically sanctions and regulates the practice of home education. About the details of such a law, there will be no universal agreement; that is inevitable. But about the need for some sort of legal framework there is consensus, except of course among the home educating families themselves. But this is often the case. Individuals and communities who are closely bound up in some peculiar and outlandish activity often have difficulty understanding how others view their special interest. The incomprehension on the face of the steam engine fanatic when he realises that not everybody is fascinated by the Flying Scotsman. The pigeon fancier who cannot see how anybody could fail to appreciate the finer points of bird breeding. So involved are such people, that they will be wholly unable to take an objective and dispassionate view of their obsession.

So it is with home education. It is the ultimate strange hobby, a hobby which affects every aspect of the lives of its devotees. If their lifestyle brings them into conflict with the law, then so be it. The law can go hang! The Queen's speech in parliament paves the way for the registration and inspection of home educators. This is perhaps the bare minimum which most normal citizens would expect and desire for the scores of thousands of children being taught out of school. Whether the new law will be able to get pass the Lords is another matter entirely. The present administration is quite fond of invoking the Parliament Act and an important Bill involving children would be a perfect excuse for doing so should there be obstruction in the Upper House. One thing that home educators should realise is that however much they campaign, to the man on the Clapham omnibus the proposition that children taught at home should be registered and inspected is an eminently sensible one. Public opinion is not likely to be with the home educators on this matter.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Lessons of the 1880 Education Act

It is hard when one is actually living through dramatic changes which affect an entire way of life, to be objective about those changes.It is a racing certainty that when the Queen gives her speech to parliament tomorrow, a committment will be made to tighten up the law on home education. On the HE-UK and EO lists there will be protests that this is designed to interfere in matters which are more properly the concern of the family rather than the state, that a parent's right to decide what is best for her child is being eroded or even scrapped entirely. There is no doubt at all that feelings will be running high. And yet....... I have a suspicion that certainly in a century and probably in as little as a decade, people will ask themselves what all the fuss was about.

In 1880, an act was passed by parliament which made school compulsory for all children aged between five and ten. There was a huge amount of opposition to this new law. It took away the rights of parents, it was striking at family life, the government was disregarding the views of many citizens, it was for parents to decide how their children should be educated. In short, many people were saying much the same sort of thing that home educating parents will be saying on Wednessday evening. The parallels between the two cases are uncannily similar, if not precise.

The fact is, none of us willingly embrace change. We are generally comfortable with the way things have been running along up until now with the legal situation and ask only that there be no change. However, times do change. The current law on home education is based upon the form of words contained in the 1944 education Act. This act was passed at a time when home education was virtually unheard of in this country. That is to say home education of children by their own parents. There were plenty of governesses and tutors and it was to exempt families who could afford these that the 1944 Act included those fateful words, "By regular attendance at school or otherwise."

It is manifestly absurd that with perhaps as many as eighty thousand children being educated at home, we are still relying upon a legal situation which was established when there were no home eduating parents. That a new law should be debated and perhaps altered to take into account the fears and worries of home educators is reasonable. That we should do nothing and continue to rely upon laws framed before there was any such thing as home education would be a mistake. There will be opposition to a new law, just as there was after the 1880 education Act. After that law was passed, so many parents refused to co-operate, that prosecutions for the non-attendance of children at school were running at over a hundred thousand a year. It was the second commonest offence prosecuted in the 1880s, exceeded only by drunkenness

History judges that those parents who so vehemently disagreed with the Education Act in 1880 were wrong. I suspect that history will subsequently judge that those who were against a new law which was intended to make the duties and responsibilities of parents and local authorities clearer as regards home education were also wrong. They will be seen as reactionaries who preferred to cling to outdated laws, rather than to consider and help shape the future.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Male and female - two different types of home education

In 1808, when he was two, the father of John Stuart Mill decided that it was time to begin his son's education in earnest. A year later, the child knew Greek. Young John's achievements throughout his childhood were astonishing. At eight he learned Latin and was soon reading the classical authors of antiquity in the original languages. In adolescence, he was regarded as an absolute prodigy of erudition. What an example for today's home educators! At twenty though, he had a nervous breakdown. For many modern home educators, that sort of burnout is seen as a fairly natural consequence of stuffing a young child's head full of facts and learning in this way. It is the sort of thing that few mothers would attempt and since the great majority of home educating parents are women, this particular style of home education seems to have fallen from favour somewhat. Most people are familiar with other examples of this peculiarly male desire to produce a genius by so-called "hothousing". Often, the long term effects do not recommend the whole scheme to the neutral observer.

Ruth Lawrence was twelve when she began studying mathematics at Oxford University. She had been home educated by her father, who gave up his job in order to do so when she was five. She went on to marry a man almost thirty years older than herself; about the same age as her father in fact! Sufiah Yosuf was thirteen when she started at Oxford. Also home educated by her father, a few years after leaving university she became a prostitute. There have always been cases of this type of home education. Invariably, it is fathers who undertake it and it always involves the relentless pushing of a child to achieve more an more at a younger and younger age. Intriguingly, local education authorities have never seemed to have a problem with such home education. It was only when ordinary mothers like Iris Harrison started doing it in the nineteen seventies that the court cases began. Was this sexism? Or is it that when women educate their children, things are often a little more relaxed and laid back? Could it be that the average local authority officer can recognise easily what is going on in the home of a father who is trying to produce a genius, but has more difficulty understanding the gentler pace of informal learning which women seem more to favour?

Certainly, there are still such men home educating their children. They are unlikely to be seen on the home education circuit though. This is hardly to be wondered at. The sort of men who do hang out with home education groups often tend to be semi-emasculated males who are determined to outdo the women in sensitivity and gentleness. They are "New Men" and only an ordinary man with the strongest stomach and remarkably powerful ability to suppress the gagging reflex would be able to withstand their company! I have observed before that from time to time I would encounter lone home educating fathers. I have a strong suspicion that they too were the pushy type of home educator whose child was performing calculus at five. One seldom hears them mentioned on the home education sites and I can only guess at how things turned out for them and their kids. There is little doubt that the world of modern home education, at least in this country, contains far more women than men. This may well be due to economic reasons, but I would be very curious to know if there are any long term differences between the outcomes for those children taught by their fathers in this way and those who spend their days in their mother's company.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

What do home educators understand by "The National Curriculum"?

I ask this question because I have increasingly noticed "The National Curriculum" being used as shorthand for everything that many home educators disagree with. It almost seems to be used as though the very phrase "National Curriculum" was interchangeble with "Structured Education" or "Conventional Schooling". I have also observed when listening to some home educating parents and reading what they write, that many of them do not apparently have any clear idea of what the National Curriculum actually is and why so many people, the present writer included, view it somewhat unfavourably.

My thoughts turned to this subject a few days ago when I read a post denouncing me and and all my works. Most of it was nothing to the purpose, but it did say the following;

" as far as he is concerned, if you don't follow the NationalCurriculum, then you are abusing your child by not providing them with aproper education."

This is a perfect example of the way that many parents on HE lists talk about the National Curriculum. Regular readers will be aware that I regard this horrible creation as monstrously bloated and hideously over-prescriptive. Not only did I not follow it myself, I seriously doubt whether any home educating parent has ever done so. Let me explain.

When my daughter was twelve, I felt that it was time to think about which IGCSEs she would be taking. We agreed on English, Mathematics and Science and I suggested History as well. She herself was keen to study religion, so we added that. As she took the three separate sciences rather than double award General Science and since she was also taking English Language and English Literature as separate subjects; this gave her a total of eight IGCSEs to study for over the next three years. I think I can safely assure everyone that studying for eight subjects in this way kept us very busy and although there was room for other things, it still took a good chunk of our time. Let us now suppose that we had been following the National Curriculum for Key Stage 3.

Well, English, Mathematics, Science, History and Religion are certainly there. So far, so good. However, that is only the beginning. As I said, those subjects alone kept us fully occupied. Now let's see what else we have to fit in to comply with the National Curriculum. Geography and a modern language. Hmmm that's pushing it a bit, but OK. We probably could just have managed this as well. Design and Technology, Information and Communication Technology and Personal, Social and Health Education. Now it's getting silly! How on earth could we fit all this in as well? But wait, there's more. Art and Design, Citizenship, Music, Physical Education and Sex and relationship Education as well. As I said above, not only did we think it absolutely grotesque to try and cram all these subjects in, but I doubt if anybody could. Yet these are all compulsory under the National Curriculum. Any child aged between 11 and 14 must study all this. No wonder the academic results are plummeting in schools. They are too busy fooling around with a lot of nonsense about sex and relationships, as though that is any concern at all of the state!

Not only are the subjects themselves specified, but every minute detail is also laid down. Every pupil learns the same things at the same time in the same way in every maintained school. Horrible! And to think that I am supposed to be a fan of this. When I spoke to Graham Badman, I asked him about this because I knew that the rumour was floating around that home educators would have to follow the National Curriculum. He seemed genuinely astounded at the very idea. As he pointed out, it was bad enough making sure that schools do so, without trying to supervise eighty thousand parents as well. I have since come to the conclusion that those who were worrying about this did not really mean that they were afraid of being expected to stick to the National Curriculum. What they really thought was that they would be told to teach properly and adhere to certain subjects, for example making sure that their child was taught mathematics and English. No bad thing, you might say, but an awfully long way from being obliged to follow the National Curriculum.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Education Otherwise - still jockeying for position

Some people are wondering whether the launch of the new petition to parliament by the hitherto unknown group "Freedom for Family Education" is a sign that Education Otherwise is finally ready to show its hand. Several things about this petition give one pause for thought. The first thing is of course that people have to sign up and give their names before they are even allowed to know what the petition says! This is a truly extraordinary state of affairs and I have never seen such a thing before. The big clue about who is behind the petition is that Ann Newstead's partner designed the website and set the whole thing up. It seems pretty certain that Education Otherwise has organised this and tried to obscure the fact by naming other groups as being involved. Some of those groups, AHE for example, are hopping mad to see their name hijacked in this way. The overall impression is that the people behind "Freedom for Family Education" are trying to lend it legitimacy by brandishing a few other organisations and claiming that they too are involved.

Why is Education Otherwise behaving in such a furtive way? It may partly be a matter of pragmatism; that is to say they realise two things clearly and are acting upon how things are, rather than how they would like them to be. Firstly, like many of us, they know that the Conservatives are the party to get in with. This is perhaps why they are playing kiss-in-the-ring with the ghastly Graham Stuart. After the meeting of the select committee in October, various Education Otherwise big hitters such as Fiona Nicholson and Ann Newstead surrounded Graham Stuart and were clearly determined to get him on their side. It seems that they have succeeded. The second fact of life that Education Otherwise have come to terms with is that there is actually going to be a change in the legal position as regards home education. I think that they are now doing their best to make the most of the situation.

The fact that Education Otherwise have more or less persuaded Graham Stuart that they are home education in this country suggests to me that there is also a little empire building going on here. Combined with recent moves to allow some of the leaders to draw salaries, assuming that funding becomes available, makes me think that they might be trying to strike a deal of some sort, whereby they become the official representatives of home education in Britain. They would thus negotiate with a new Conservative administration on behalf of other home educators, perhaps end up forming a quango like that which supervises home education in Tasmania. It must be an alluring prospect and I watch future developments with great interest. The only flies in the ointment are some of the other home education organisations who are miffed that they were not as quick off the mark as Education Otherwise. To them, I would say, "Come on guys, nobody likes a bad loser! Education Otherwise have won this by a mile. There's no point getting ratty now, just because you didn't know a good opportunity when you saw it."

Thursday, 12 November 2009

An emerging mythos - the little people versus the big, bad state

Any dispassionate and objective observer looking at home education in this country cannot help but be struck by the almost complete polarisation which has emerged between those seeking a change in the status quo and those hoping for the situation to remain unchanged. It seems as though some titanic, Manichaean struggle is taking place; the forces of good ranged against the power of evil, darkness against light. This, at any rate, is how things seem to be seen by many home educating parents. This was neatly illustrated recently by some of the comments made about pieces which I posted about Paula Rothermel's submission to the DCSF select committee.

Now it is more or less taken as an article of faith in certain quarters that Graham Badman is a wicked and untruthful person. Critics of his report on home education vie with each other to see what corrupt motives and twisted logic can be imputed to the man. I have remarked before upon the phrase used in one of the submissions to the select committee, "I reject the Badman Report and all its recommendations....." and the eerie similarity between this and the words of the baptismal service, "I reject the Devil and all his works...". In other words, anything that Badman, Ed Balls and the DCSF come up with is bad by definition and proceeds from murky and questionable motives. By contrast, the words of prominent supporters of home education such as John Holt, Roland Meighan, Alan Thomas and Paula Rothermel, are accorded enormous and almost superstitious respect, one might say reverence. These are the prophets, the saints of the home education cause. They can do no wrong.

I was slightly staggered a few days ago when I explained in response to a comment, that I did not know whether Graham Badman had said anything at all about Munchausen's Syndrome. The reply was, "But Paula said he did, so he must have." When I said that there was very little evidence for his having said anything on the subject, the response was, "We have Paula's written evidence, that's all the evidence we need." This naive faith in an individual is astounding. I feel that Graham Badman is a fairly decent and reasonably fair man, but if somebody told me, "Graham Badman said it, so it must be true.", I would fall off my chair laughing!

The reason for this is simple. I assume that most people are basically good and have good motives and wish for the good of their fellow humans. At the same time, I also assume that people are fallible and weak; that they exaggerate, make mistakes, forget things, colour their narratives to enhance their points of view and are in general pretty unreliable and need supporting evidence. I imagine this is true of Graham Badman as much as it is of Paula Rothermel, of Ed Balls as it is of Alan Thomas. I cannot help noticing though, that this is not a widely held view in the world of home educators. In this world view, opponents of unregulated home education are motivated not by love of children and concern for their welfare, but by money, desire for power and sheer malevolence. If they say something which is demonstrably untrue, it is not by mistake but because they are lying and trying to deceive us. Errors by the prophets of home education such as Meighan and Rothermel, on the other hand, are overlooked and excused. Anybody drawing attention to such things is at best being tactless and at worst an enemy of home education. For instance, when Roland Meighan published a bizarre response to the Badman review, I pointed out that many of those he claimed as home educated were nothing of the sort. I mean C.S. Lewis, for Heaven's sake! I received a sadly reproachful email from Mike Fortune-Wood, saying that we should not draw attention to any of Roland Meighan's apparent mistakes, as it might upset him! Imagine if I said here, "Come on you chaps, don't be beastly to Graham Badman, it might upset him."

Those opposed to the recommendations of the Badman Report speak sneeringly of the futility of adding, "another layer of bureaucracy", as though the sole and immediate object of the exercise was to act as a job creation scheme for the civil service. There is no acknowledgement that those making these plans might themselves be very concerned about the welfare of children. They may be mistaken in this, or wrong about the methods they propose to use, but to ignore the fact they there is genuine worry in local authorities and the DCSF about the life chances of home educated children is to steer the whole debate onto a wrong footing. The aim is not "to intrude in family life", another favourite expression of those opposed to any change in monitoring, but to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children.

And so the mythic system is complete. On one side are the government and local authorities, aided by a few quislings and fools such as myself; on the other, a noble and heroic band of parents, determined at all costs to prevent an uncaring state from interfering with their right to raise their children as they see fit. There can be no midway between these two positions, no room for manoeuvre. If you are not with the home educators, you must be against them. The whole thing is portrayed as a classic struggle between a vast, faceless and monolithic state determined at all cost to crush individuality and on the other side a handful of dedicated and enlightened thinkers, the archetypal small people standing for their rights.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Fred West and home education

The county of Gloucestershire seems to exert some sort of jinx on home education in this country. A few years ago it produced Eunice Spry, perhaps the only known and registered home educator to be convicted of brutally abusing the children in her care. This case triggered alarm generally about the vulnerability of home educated children and quite possibly helped precipitate the Badman review of elective home education. Many years before the trial of Eunice Spry was of course the case of Fred West; also in Gloucestershire and also bringing in its wake calls for a closer look at how home education is monitored.

On the face of it, it is odd that that Fred and Rosemary West's arrest should be tied in with home education. After all, they were neither of them home educators, so why should their crimes have caused concern about this issue? Fred West, as readers are probably aware, murdered a number of young women throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties. His wife helped him to do this. In 1971, while her husband was in prison, Rosemary West found herself stuck with Charmaine, his eight year old daughter from a previous marriage. Nobody knows why, but Rosemary West took it into her head to murder the child and bury her in the coal cellar. When he came out of prison, Fred West then chopped up the body and re-buried it under the kitchen floor. For the next twenty three years, nobody was any the wiser. A little girl had been withdrawn from school and then vanished from the face of the earth and nobody took any notice at all!

When I gave evidence to the DCSF select committee last month, I made the point that when I moved from Haringey to Essex, nobody had any record of my daughter's existence. Had I murdered her before I moved, buried her on Tottenham marshes and moved to Loughton as a single man, nobody would have been any the wiser. She too, just like Fred West's daughter Charmaine, could have dropped out of sight completely with no questions being asked by anybody about her disappearance.

Shortly after Charmaine West's body was unearthed, Gloucestershire County Council decided that something really needed to be done about home education. Or more precisely, they decided that something needed to be done which would allow the LEA to see what was happening to children once they were being withdrawn from school. They approached central government and expressed their fears to anybody who would listen, but perhaps the time just wasn't ripe. Maybe there simply weren't enough home educating families fifteen years ago to make it a big enough problem. For whatever reason, nothing came of it.

The nature of Gloucestershire's concern should be obvious to everybody. It has nothing to do with home education as such, but the ease with which parents can withdraw their children from school and not give any forwarding address or details of what provision will be made for the child is a little worrying. Put bluntly, someone can de-register their child from school and in many cases nobody has the least idea what becomes of the child. That's why Rosemary West was able to dispose of her unwanted stepdaughter so easily. It cannot be doubted that if a system had then been in place to track children and their places of education, then Fred West's career as serial killer would never really have got off the ground. Enquiries would have been made about Charmaine's whereabouts and what educational setting she was currently in. The inability to produce the child would have led almost immediately to the discovery that she had vanished.

People on several home education lists lately have been asking about the Fred West case and scratching their heads in bewilderment as to what in fact it has to do with home education. This is the answer. Nothing at all to do with home education, but everything to do with ensuring that children do not fall between the cracks and vanish from sight completely.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

A visit to the museum

To the museum of London today. While I was there, I could not help observing the behaviour of parties of school children and comparing their experience with that of visiting museums with my daughter when she was little. Usually we went to the museums alone or in the company of a friend who also home educated her daughter. Our trips could not have been more different than what I saw of the schoolchildren's visit.

For one thing, the sheer amount of time wasted was simply incredible. Organising the kids to go to the lavatory takes about fifteen minutes. Visiting the shop so that they can all buy a pencil or rubber takes half an hour! I followed one group round unobtrusively, just to get a feel for how much they might be learning. (Luckily I was not spotted and denounced as a prowling paedophile!) The first thing that struck me was of course that children in a large group always behave in a pretty silly way. They encourage each other to giggle, muck about, make daft noises, prod each other and so on. This was a constant backdrop which made it hard for them to concentrate on what the teacher was saying. Again, a lot of time wasted by the teacher simply keeping order and stopping the kids making a nuisance of themselves.

There was no lingering in front of any cases which were particularly interesting to the children. Because of the constraints of time, everything had to be done at a breakneck pace. Worksheets were handed out, which the children had to fill in by looking at different displays. What actually happened was that as soon as one of the children had found the answers, all the rest copied what he had written. The object of the exercise was not education per se, but making sure that the teacher had a sheaf of complete worksheets to take away with her!

The children's conversation, when I could eavesdrop on it, did not seem to be about the Romans. It was more to do with the X Factor and what they had in their packed lunches. Lunch itself was a huge performance. After they had eaten, the idea was that they wandered round looking at things which interested them. Needless to say, they all went over to the three or four computer terminals which showed images of items in the museum's collection and gave information about them. They were not really interested in anything except being able to use a mouse and look at a screen. This was so bizarre. Here they are in a museum, with bronze age helmets, Roman swords and fossil remains around them. Instead of looking at those things, they look at pictures of them on a computer screen!

I would be surprised if any of those children learnt anything at all from their visit to the museum of London. Nor, I suspect, did the teachers expect them to do so; it was simply another box to tick, a cultural experience for the class. How very different were the times when I went to the museum with my daughter. Living on the outskirts of London, we went to museums every week. It was a marvellous adventure. Sometimes we would spend hours in one gallery, drawing and reading about something or other that interested us that week. Other days, we would roam through the whole of the British Museum, not looking at anything in particular, just flitting around. Some days we would take a picnic and spend all day at South Kensington, on others just pop in for ten minutes on the way to the park. We practically lived in the museums at South Kensington when she was five or six. One had to pay at that time and I had a season ticket from which I was determined to extract full value!

I don't suppose that my daughter learnt anything at all relevant to any of the examinations which she subsequently took. It was all just for fun. Museums and art galleries were not an occasional treat, but something that we did all the time. This was not education, in the sense that the aim was to learn X or Y. It was a grounding in what I consider the important things in life. Curiosity, an appreciation of beautiful things, seeing famous objects like the Rosetta Stone or Stephenson's Rocket in real life. All this was the bedrock upon which her later, formal education was built. I rather doubt that the odd day out in the company of thirty school children would have fitted the bill in quite the same way.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Munchausen's again

Well, I am certainly glad to find myself acquitted of the charge of dreaming up some connection between Munchausen's Syndrome by proxy and home education; I find that people have evidently been talking about this idea for years. Asking around, I have found a few home educators who feel that they have been suspected of this. Even the woman who sat next to me at the select committee was herself suspected by some professionals of having this syndrome a few years ago. She didn't, I hasten to add, have it at all. Most frequently, it seems to be with reference to ME and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, as I surmised, but I have also found it associated with autism. All very curious. Actually, this shows Graham Badman in a rather better light. Instead of simply plucking the idea out of thin air, it suggests that he had actually been doing a bit of research. Mind you, as Julie said a few days ago, without knowing how he said it and exactly what was said, it is hard to know how serious he was being. I have certainly said things myself in exasperation such as, "I think some of these home educators must be absolutely mental!". Of course this has been said to my wife in the privacy of my own home; I would have thought twice about saying anything of the sort in front of a witness.

I don't suppose for a moment that Graham Badman meant to suggest that all home educating mothers suffered from this syndrome or even that it was a major factor in the decision to home educate. He is not a fool. The second meeting with Paula Rothermel took place after he had visited a home education group at which practically every child to whom he was introduced apparently had some special need or other. One was too gifted for school, another had ME, a couple were dyslectic, there was OCD, dyspraxia, ADHD and various other syndromes. I heard about this from one of the few mothers present who had home educated through simple choice. I can see that after meeting so many children described like this, he might have felt tempted to wonder what on earth was going on!

The main objection that people seem currently to be raising to the idea that there might be cases of Munchausen's by proxy among home educating mothers seems to be that the majority of home educators do not crave attention, which is usually seen as a defining factor of the syndrome. I am not so sure that this is a good argument. Often, the very act of withdrawing a child from school does attract attention to a mother. Attention from the school, from her family and friends, from the local authority, health services, sometimes even social workers. So although it may not be the only reason why parents take their kids out of school, it could still be a factor in some cases. I am not a huge fan of Paula Rothermel's research, as I said yesterday, but she did find that over a fifth of home educating parents have children whom they claim to have special educational needs.

In short, it should be quite clear now that I did not myself invent this idea of a connection between Munchausen's Syndrome and home education. I felt I had to nip that in the bud, otherwise I would find it being accepted as fact that Simon Webb told Graham Badman that home educators had Munchausen's! Without wishing to be unkind, I can't help noticing that the person who started this particular hare is not only on medication for anxiety, but has also self-diagnosed herself as suffering from dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD. More worryingly, she has apparently retrospectively diagnosed some of her grownup children as having had similar learning difficulties. I would have thought that such a person could hardly keep too quiet on the subject of Munchausen's syndrome by proxy; never mind accusing complete strangers of starting a scare about it! It is however an interesting notion and I would be keen to find out more. I certainly would not dismiss it out of hand as a contributing factor in some parents decision to de-register their child, but I would have to see an awful lot of convincing evidence in order to persuade me that it was a major cause of home education.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Paula Rothermel and the thirty five children

Last week it was suggested on one of the home education lists that I was responsible for Graham Badman's mistaken views about the research carried out by Paula Rothermel. What are these mistaken views? Specifically, the allegation is that Graham Badman ignored the fact that Dr. Rothermel had conducted extensive research into home education and obstinately insisted that her work only involved thirty five children. Perhaps it is time to revisit this research and establish first whether or not Graham Badman was wrong in dismissing it.

In February 1997 Paula Rothermel, a student at Durham University, sent out two and a half thousand questionnaires to home educators belonging to Education Otherwise. the following year she sent out the same number again. A small number were also sent to LEAs and a few other places. The result was a little over a thousand responses. Two important points need to be made here. Firstly, this survey is a snapshot of the situation almost thirteen years ago, before online communities and before the exponential growth of home education in this country. It is well past its sell-by date. The second point is that only a fifth of parents responded. This immediately skews the findings. What sort of people replied? Parents who were struggling? Parents who were educated? parents who were articulate and successful at home educating? This is a classic case of a self selecting sample.

These questionnaires did not yield any information about the academic achievement of the children. We will come to that in a moment. They did reveal motives for home educating, how parents found the experience, what jobs they had and things like that. Now most home educating parents have the vague idea that Paula Rothermel showed that home educated children did better than schoolchildren. This is where the thirty five children that Graham Badman mentioned enter the picture. Paula Rothermel selected thirty five home educating families whose children she tested using the PIPS (Performance Indicators in Primary Schools) Baseline Assessments. These look at academic achievement in young children. It is unclear how many children were actually involved and in part of the work, Dr. Rothermel seems to suggest that it was thirty five children rather than thirty five families. This is where Graham badman got the figure of thirty five children. He did not pluck it from thin air. I have to say, thirty five children is a very small sample indeed. It is upon these assessments, carried out on a sample of children whose families self selected themselves over twelve years ago, that all of Paula Rothermel's conclusions about how well home educated children do, are based.

I do not think that Graham Badman can be blamed for stating that Dr. Rothermel's work was based upon thirty five children. Essentially, he was correct. As to whether it was I who told him this, well he saw Paula Rothermel twice before I had even spoken to him. Any objective person who reads Dr. Rothermel's work will probably come to pretty much the same conclusion that Graham Badman did.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Home educated children and socialisation

A mother who teaches her child at home asked me recently about the question of socialisation. It is practically an article of faith among many home educators that the entire socialisation problem is a complete myth. Indeed, even asking about it can make one look like a newcomer to the whole business and probably one who has been got at by their local authority into the bargain! I mean, socialisation! Everybody knows that home educated children aren't stuck at home, but get out to meet loads of people. Well, yes......and no.

The person who asked me about this was well aware that her child would be able to socialise to the extent of meeting other children. What she was specifically concerned about was how her child would be able to build relationships with those children. This is a very good question indeed, and one which is not always addressed by home educators.

There is of course all the difference in the world between seeing the same people at work every day, perhaps going to lunch with them, walking to the tube, going for a drink after work and so on and the situation with those we see briefly for an hour a week; say at an evening class. In the one case, which is very similar to school, we get to know them pretty well. In the other, which is like the ballet class which a home educated child might attend, we barely have the chance to exchange a few words. A lot of the "socialisation" undertaken by home educated children falls into this latter category; an hour or so once a week for specific activities. There is seldom the sustained, day in day out, week after week type of contact with the same bunch of kids which gives rise naturally to friendships at school.

There are ways round this. When my own daughter was little, I would assiduously "court" the parents of children whom I though might make suitable friends for her. This is a damned tricky business for a man, since most of the other parents are mothers. On the one hand you run the risk of looking like a predatory paedophile cruising around looking for new victims, on the other you might present as a lone father yourself, hitting on single mothers! Since my own social skills are nor particularly well developed, this led to some awkward situations over the years. I had a fair number of successes though, children that my daughter could have for sleepovers and so on. I have to say that I had to put quite a bit of work into this, even just to acquire three or four regular friends for my daughter. I must also say that the associations which I was obliged to form with various mothers in order to facilitate this gave rise to a certain amount of pursing of lips, narrowing of eyes and sharp intakes of breath from my wife.

Interestingly, now that she is sixteen and more or less her own boss, Simone does not choose to see any of these friends whom I so carefully engineered for her. Some of them, she saw for over eight years, but the friendships, if that is what they were, died without my input. I was of course always careful to ask her, "Would you like to see Joanne?" or Mary or whoever, so this was all done with her approval. Never the less, I do not really know just how good an idea it is for a parent to be arranging a child's social life in this way. In retrospect, perhaps not a very good idea.

The good news is that now she is at college, she does not seem to have any difficulty socialising and making friends. Presumably the experience of being home educated did her no particular harm in that regard. (This does not of course mean that when she is thirty, she will not be weeping to her therapist about the lonely childhood which she was forced to endure in the company of her mad father.) I am curious to know what others have found about this, especially those whose children have now grown up. The person who asked me this question visits this Blog and I am sure that she would like to hear other people's views about this.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Submissions to the select committee

I have been looking through the submissions made to the DCSF select committee recently and very interesting reading they make too. On a personal note, they do tend rather to confirm my suspicion as to why I alone of home educating parents was called to give evidence to the committee. Readers will no doubt recollect that the suggestion was widely made that this was some sort of fix, evidence of a sinister conspiracy at the heart of the consultation process. It was, as I said all along, nothing of the sort. I mean just look at some of this stuff. Tania Berlow, well known to habitues of the HE-UK list, sent in an astonishing ten thousand words, craftily split up into three separate documents. Did she really imagine that anybody would actually read all that? The average civil servant has the attention span of a grasshopper; his eyes begin to glaze over after reading a couple of hundred words at most! Which is precisely why I cunningly limited my own submission to a mere three hundred words. No wonder they invited me; I was probably the only person whose submission was read in its entirety!

There are a number of interesting points about the submissions. One, which I have touched upon above, is the sheer number of words churned out by many of those sending memoranda to the committee. The Staffords between them managed five and a half thousand, somebody called Sariter Goacher sent in a single handed effort of five thousand. Even Jeremy Yallop, who opposed me in the TES debate, could not slim his opinions down to fewer than three and a half thousand words; more than ten times as many as my own submission.

As I suspected, the number of anti-Badman submissions had been inflated by various means. The Staffords and Tania Berlow sent in five submissions; that's five from just two home educating families. I noticed other husband and wife teams who had sent in separate pieces under different names in order to suggest that opposition to the Badman Report was greater than is actually the case. There were also a few parents and children both sending in separate memoranda. When you add to that the submissions from people who were opposed to the recommendations of the Badman Report but were not actually home educators (some were parents who were planning to home educate, others were academics ), MPs and somebody called Kelly Green who does not even live in this country, then the actual number of home educating families opposing Badman's recommendations in this way to the select committee is slim indeed.

A couple of other points that I noticed. Firstly, no fewer than eight "doctors". Not doctors of the sort who carry a stethoscope and measure your blood pressure, you understand, but academic types. I deplore this tendency for people to describe themselves as Dr. Smith in this way! It has crept up on us over the years; forty years ago nobody but a medical man would have dreamt of using the title "doctor". Ah well, autre temps, autre mores . Another thing that catches the eye immediately is the fact that 99% of the people who wrote to the select committee appear to be educated and white. Only a couple of names which look as though they have their origin in the Indian subcontinent, a few Jews, a group of Muslims and that's pretty well it on the minority front. I mention this, because some people objected to my inclusion in the list of witnesses specifically on the grounds that I was white, male and probably middle class. Looks as though I was not alone in this.

I have been looking closely at Paula Rothermel's submission, mainly because of the Munchausen's thing that was attributed to my influence. I have to say that there is something a little fishy about this submission. Dr. Rothermel, (another "doctor"!), had two meetings with Badman. At the second one she claims that he was dismissive of her research. She says;

"I consider the review to be seriously flawed. It should be a matter of concern to the Select Committee that the person commissioned to carry out the review could so easily be influenced by a lay person hostile to my work. I question the rigour applied to the Review."

Now how on earth did she know that it was a lay person who had influenced Graham Badman in this way? And how did she know that he had been easily influenced? How did she know that he hadn't been asking about her research to other people in the field? This is odd and it becomes even odder when I look at an email sent to me by Dr. Rothermel in May, shortly after she had met Graham Badman. She said then that the people who had been "bitching" about her work to him were other academics who were always denigrating her work. Could it be that she has told the select committee that he was "easily influenced" by a "lay person" in order to try and put him in a bad light?

I am also curious about this Munchausen's business. In her memorandum she says that the first thing Graham Badman asked her about was the possibility that home educating mothers suffered from Munchausen's Syndrome by proxy. Since she was in regular communication with Mike Fortune-Wood all through the time of the review, I am rather surprised that this strange suggestion did not surface earlier. After all, every time there was any talk of any sort of abuse, home educators leapt at once to crush the idea. How is it possible that Graham Badman was saying weird stuff like this in the early Spring and nobody has talked about it before? Very odd. At the very least I should have expected Mike Fortune-Wood to spread it round the HE-UK list. After all, it is a pretty odd suggestion and could have shown Graham Badman in a poor light had it been publicised. It would certainly have indicated that her was not impartial. But no, had these submissions not been made public, I suspect that we would never have heard about this.

I am still trawling through the other submissions to see what comes up. I have to say that the DCSF one is interesting, although some of their claims need to be checked carefully. I cannot resist closing with a quotation from somebody called Ruth Grey. She opens her submission with the line;

"I reject the Badman report and its recommendations in their entirety."

I love this! It puts me irresistibly in mind of the words of the ceremony of baptism, where one says; "I reject the Devil and all his works"!