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.


  1. If the concerns of government about child welfare were genuine, then social services departments would not have been allowed to struggle on with serious staffing problems for a decade (or longer in some cases). LAs can't cope with children known to be at risk, and thousands of school-educated children are 'falling through the net'.

    In other words, there is robust evidence that large numbers of children in receipt of public sector services are being failed and have been failed over a long period. Why are these problems not being addressed first? It's true that there *might* be problems with home educated children, but legislating for problems that *might* exist is an irresponsible use of public funds.

  2. Anyone involved in a campaign against a government feels the same way. It's obvious. Unless you are some huge multinational corporation with endless resources to use in lobbying, you'd be quite right to feel that way. LOL!

    Facts are important however. The way people refer to Badman and Balls makes me uncomfortable. In the same way that you talking about Rothermel (she might be lying, she might not) makes me feel uncomfortable. I would prefer it if people stuck to the facts, myself and avoided discussing individuals at all.

    Mrs Anon

  3. "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."

    Why should this be a myth and not the truth? Why should strangers claim to care about my children's welfare when they don't even know them, or anything about them?

    You do overstate the situation for dramatic effect though, as usual. I wouldn't call it an entirely faceless state: it has many faces and it's obviously not entirely monolithic. And I wouldn't call those of us 'on the other side' a 'handful' (though I imagine we've been called worse by the DCSF), nor that we're all particularly enlightened thinkers.

    We're just parents, aren't we? Parents who have found a way of raising our children without school or official intervention that works well - better, we think, than the usual way. Otherwise, we wouldn't do it.

    Then there is talk of official intervention, which we naturally resist for fear that it will spoil this better way we think we've found.

    The motivations on the part of government are probably many and diverse. No doubt some will have child welfare concerns, though I think those are a bit questionable for children they don't actually know, as I said above. Others have wider, more long term agenda. Still others will be using our issue temporarily to further their own position.

    I don't know anyone who sees it exactly as you've depicted but there is an 'us versus them' element to the proceedings, of course. How else can we unite to resist the proposals with any strength or chance of success?

  4. Simon Webb wrote (in reference to Meighan):
    "I pointed out that many of those he claimed as home educators were nothing of the sort. I mean C.S. Lewis, for Heaven's sake!"

    What, precisely, do you mean?

    Meighan has written that Lewis was home educated, and this is true in that he was privately tutored up to the age of ten. Where has Meighan written that Lewis was a home EDUCATOR? Were you simply confused by the title of the book to which he referred, "Famous Home Schoolers"?

  5. I meant of course "home educated", rather than "home educator" A simple typo. I shall be postinga longer piece on this subject tonight.

  6. "... forces of good ranged against the power of evil...And so the mythic system is complete... There can be no midway between these two positions... a classic struggle"

    Of course, any truly reasonable person would appreciate that Satan has justifiable concerns and grievances, and one must find a midway between the two positions of good and evil. If only God and his dedicated band of sneering followers would find some room for manoeuvre, then the whole of creation would be a much better place for everyone. Remember, Every Angel Matters! Pass the apple pie and brimstone.

  7. I agree with your statements about the importance of not accepting the words of any one person at their face value.

    On the subject of CS Lewis's home education . . . he describes his various educational experiences in his book, Surprised by Joy. His youngest years did include some home education, and his years just prior to Oxford were spent in a one-on-one tutoring situation with a professor affectionately known as "The Great Knock." I would consider those years to be home education, although the educator was not actually Lewis' parent.