As a regular churchgoer, I am every Sunday exposed to a great mystery. A priest waves his hands over a piece of bread and mumbles some incantation and miraculously the host is transformed into something altogether more wonderful than mere flour and water. It has in some sense become the body of Christ. This matter is too deep for a simple man like me and I have at various times asked to have this strange process explained to me. Ultimately, I am told; it is a mystery. One must simply accept that the thing happens and just be jolly glad that it does. Most unsatisfactory for the man of reason!
I am irresistibly reminded of this when trying to get believers to explain to me the essential mystery of autonomous education. The closest that we seem able to get is; "It works and you just have to take people's word for it. If it is measured or observed, then you are apt to destroy the spontaneity of the thing and thus change it!" Now as I say, I am a simple man who is quite prepared to believe improbable things. (After all, if I am able to swallow virgin births and men who come back from the dead, you would think I would have no trouble believing in a little matter like autonomous education. I am like the man in the Bible who swallowed a camel and yet strained at a gnat!)
Almost fifty years ago, Paul Goodman had this to say in Compulsory Miseducation;
"the puzzle is not how to teach reading, but why some children fail to learn to read. Given the amount of exposure that any urban child gets, any normal animal should spontaneously catch on to the code. What prevents? It is almost demonstrable that, for many children, it is precisely going to school that prevents - because of the school's alien style, banning of spontaneous interest, extrinsic rewards and punishments."
Alan Thomas in his books says much the same thing, that the teaching of even so basic a subject as literacy is unnecessary. Children will just pick it up by themselves. Some authors have gone even further. According to John Holt, not only is school not needed for the acquisition of literacy, it can be positively harmful! Both he and Goodman apparently believe that reading problems are actually caused by schools. In other words, they are the disease and not the cure.
For some inexplicable reason, either sheer, bloody minded stubborness or perhaps because they are in thrall to the hidebound orthodoxy of mainstream educationists, almost every teacher, local authority officer and member of staff at the Department of Children, Schools and Families disagree with this perspective. They persist in the belief that it is necessary and desirable that small children are taught how to read. For myself, I remain unconvinced, but open to persuasion. I am unlikely to be persuaded though because Mrs. Smith's son did not go to school and now he reads just fine. Nor am I likely to be swayed by the horror stories of parents whose children have suffered untold misfortunes in maintained schools only to blossom when once they are deregistered. Nor, I'll warrant are those hard headed types at the DCSF likely to change their minds on purely anecdotal evidence of this sort.. They stand there like Mr. Gradgrind, saying, as he did;
" Now what I want are facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else."
(Hard Times, by I am confident enough of my readers' erudition to believe it unnecessary to mention the fact)
Every time somebody offers to examine or measure or look closely at autonomous education, there is a panic. The standard tests are inadequate to do justice to the activity and can even harm it. The local authority are the quite the wrong crowd to be dealing with it. Ofsted are no good, who knows what their motives are? (Of course, strictly speaking it should not matter a damn what the motives are of those doing the testing. I can administer Schonell's reading test to any child and my motives will not affect the outcome.) Essentially, we are told that the thing must be taken on faith and that many parents just know that it works without a lot of tiresome testing. This may be enough for me; as I say I am able to believe a good number of strange and improbable things, but I have a very strong feeling that it will not for much longer be enough for those charged with the monitoring of elective home education. Unless autonomous educators come up with either some solid evidence that this practice is actually educating children, along with some way of assessing the process, then there will soon be much wailing and gnashing of teeth in many home educating families when the provisions of the Children, Schools and Families Bill become law.