Sunday, 31 January 2010

More about education

There seems to be some sort of impression that my view of education is limited to acquiring formal qualifications such as GCSEs. This is not at all true. I see education for children as something which prepares them for a satisfying life and opens as many opportunities as possible for them in their adult life. Being happy, having emotional stability and strong family relationships are part of this education. Inculcating a love of learning is also very important. This can be done by example and by what Roland Meighan describes as "purposive conversation." All this is quite true and formed an integral part of my own daughter's education. Another strand of this education inevitably involved studying for GCSEs.

Some of those who have left comments on my previous posts seem to imagine that I am obsessed with higher education or with children needing GCSEs to get jobs. It is a little more complicated than that. I was actually obsessed with making sure that my daughter had as many options as possible and that she did not restrict her life chances too early on in her life. For instance, she was very keen on ballet and music as a child. For a while, it looked as if that was the direction her life would take. This would have been absolutely fine with me, but I still wanted to keep open her options. For this reason, we studied a variety of academic subjects in addition to music and dance. At some point, she decided that she would prefer to focus upon creative writing and English; an interest which she still maintains. This did not mean dropping music or mathematics. We continued studying a wide range of subjects. This is just as well, because later on, she discovered that the universities which interested her were always impressed with A level Mathematics.

The point that I am making is that neither of us could possibly have known which direction her interests would ultimately take. I was very surprised when she decided to take A level Mathematics. In the event, she decided to go to college to study for A levels in Mathematics, English Literature, History and Government and Politics. This would not have been possible had she not taken and passed at least some GCSEs. People talk casually of presenting a portfolio of work instead of taking GCSEs and that is fine; if one wishes to study Art, Photography, Textile Design or Musical theatre. Try getting onto an A level course in Physics, Mathematics, History or Chemistry without GCSEs and you will be in for a shock. In other words, had I not encouraged her to continue studying a range of subjects to GCSE, she would be unable to pursue the life she wishes now.

We can debate whether or not it should be so, but those parents who don't arrange for their children to take GCSEs are actually making choices for their children, choices which will limit their opportunities in later life. A child of eleven may not much feel like studying physics to GCSE level, it is true. He may not plan to take A levels; my own daughter did not. But if at the age of sixteen he wishes to go to college and study for A levels, that early disinclination will come back to haunt him.

It is our job as parents to give our children the greatest possible range of options in their lives. Deciding not to enter them for GCSEs closes off a wide range of these options at an early age. many parents talk vaguely of their children being able to take GCSEs later if they wish. These are usually the parents who have not realised just how horribly restricted Further Education Colleges have become in recent years. It cannot be right for us as parents to close off avenues to our children in this way unless we have very sound reasons for doing so.

On the nature of education

A few days ago somebody made a comment here when I was talking about education. This person suggested that my view of education was somewhat restricted and that other things were at least as important as a bunch of GCSEs. For example, "happiness, emotional maturity, family relationships, etc," This is an interesting view and one shared by many of the parents who took part in Paula Rothermel's research back in 1997. Quite a number of those people also thought that strong family relationships were a good reason to educate their children at home.

Now of course the first question that a potential employer is likely to ask a young person, whether home educated or otherwise, is not "Did you have a good relationship with your mother?" Similarly, emotional maturity is not likely to come up during a job interview. That's not to say that it is unimportant, just that it is not the sort of thing one can discover in an hour or so. A far more likely question is "How many GCSEs do you have and at what grades?" This is what most people mean by education. This applies not just to employers, but also colleges, universities, the Department of Children, Schools and Families and also the ordinary man or woman in the street. Why should this be so?

The fact is, much of the "studying" for GCSEs entails learning a lot of stuff by heart, none of which will be the slightest use in your future life. Let's face it, nobody you meet after the age of 16 is going to be the least bit interested in knowing what the Alkaline Earth metals are, or how far it is to the Sun, or the date of the Treaty of Utrecht, or anything else that you had to learn in order to pass your GCSEs. Nor will you be expected to solve a quadratic equation or know how to spell "pterodactyl". From that point of view, most of one's "education" has been a complete waste of time! So why do people use examinations as a measure in this way? There are several reasons.

For her History IGCSE, my daughter chose as one of her themes, "The Changing Nature of Twentieth Century Warfare". Unless she gets a job as an historian or applies for a post as a curator at the Imperial War Museum, you might think that all that study was pretty pointless; yet it impresses colleges, universities and employers a great deal. For one thing, it demonstrates that she was able to stick at something for a year or two and work systematically at acquiring the rudiments of the topic. This is what you might call a transferable skill. If you can master a load of stuff about nuclear strategy, the tactical use of aircraft carriers, combined operations in World War I, the concept of limited warfare as developed in the Korean War and so on, then the chances are that you should be able to learn and remember other stuff too. If you are working in an insurance office, then the prospects of your picking up the information necessary to be a loss adjuster are good. If you become a solicitor, then you have shown that you can study and remember information which is of little interest and no use. Looks like there should be no problem learning about law! Passing GCSEs at high grades often means that you did not spend your education flitting like a butterfly from one topic to another, never staying long enough at one subject to get to grips with it.

This sort of study suggests that you are capable of deciding to do something and then sticking at it without giving up after a month or two. This is worth knowing for a potential employer or prospective college or university. You don't want to engage a smart fellow for your office and then find that he loses interest after a few weeks and drifts off to get another job. You want someone who has staying power. Applying yourself to studies for a couple of years is evidence that you might be able to stick at a job. Nor do you want to give a student a place, only to discover that she gives up in the first month or term. There is also some indication of intellectual ability in passing a lot of GCSEs at high grades. An A at maths might indicate that you are not a complete fool and that you could be able to understand abstract concepts. It is certainly not an infallible indicator, but it is better than nothing.

Having a good relationship with one's family, on the other hand, is probably a pretty poor guide to how somebody will perform both intellectually and practically in future life. It definitely does not give you any clue as to whether or not they will make good employees. Again, happy people of course are generally to be preferred to miserable ones in the workplace or university, but some happy people are utterly useless and a bit stupid. Being happy is not one of the most prized traits which employers are looking for.

In short, it is a good thing for children to be happy, emotionally stable and to enjoy strong family relationships. I certainly valued those things myself, but they do not really constitute an education. That is also why, when a local authority is wondering whether a child is receiving an efficient, full-time education suitable to her age and ability, they tend to be asking about dull stuff like how many GCSEs will she be taking, rather than how happy and emotionally mature she is.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Possible drawbacks of the current system for regulating home education

I have been reading some of the comments made on my piece yesterday about Khyra Ishaq. I honestly can't decide whether people are being deliberately obtuse or if they do see the problems but are just pretending not to understand why some of us are concerned. Let's look at how things work at the moment and see if the arrangements for home education now could perhaps be improved.

All that is needed as things stand, to take a child out of school legally and permanently is to drop a line to the school telling them what you are doing. That's it. One can then refuse all access to one's child to pretty well anybody. If you want, you could keep the kid locked up in the house and out of anybody's sight for six months or so. Of course, very few home educators actually do this. My own daughter was seen out and about far more than children who were at school; we were very well known to everybody locally. I suspect that this is the case with many home educated children and their parents. All the same, it would have been possible to keep the child locked in the house and refuse to let anybody see her if that was what I had wanted. This is worrying.

People yesterday said that local authorities have many powers which they don't use. It's not really as easy as that though. When a parent simply refuses to open the door or let anybody speak to their child, there is precious little that can be done. Of course, if a social worker believes that the child is in danger, then an Emergency Protection Order can be obtained from the courts. These are not issued lightly. The court would want a good deal more evidence than, "I have not seen the kid and wondered how he is keeping". They would require actual evidence of danger and potential harm. If you have not been allowed in the house and cannot see the child, how would you establish this to a magistrate's satisfaction? Because handing a social worker one of these orders with a warrant attached, means that she will soon be accompanying a squad of police who will be breaking down the door of somebody's home to gain access to their children. I'm sure none of us would want courts to dish out such powers just because a parent was not co-operating with their local authority, now would we?

Even without officially deregistering a child from school, it is quite possible to take her out for weeks or months without anything much happening to you. After a long time, the local authority might get tough and threaten you with an SAO, but this would typically take months.

Something that I found a little surprising yesterday was that many of those commenting seemed to think that schools should act quickly and decisively when a child is withdrawn. It is true that this would prevent those very rare cases like Khyra Ishaq where a child was in danger, but it would also cause a lot of problems for those whose children were, for example, simply school refusers. This is the essential problem. How do we devise a system which will catch evil parents who have taken their children out of school in order to harm them, without inconveniencing the great majority of parents who are having trouble with their children or are intending to educate them at home?

The fact is that it is only in the last fifteen or twenty years that ordinary parents have become aware that they can take their children out of school legally. The perception used to be that school was compulsory. Any mother like that of Khyra Ishaq's would not even have considered not sending her child to school; she would have been nervous about the possible consequences. Again, this is good for deterring wicked and cruel people, but bad for those who genuinely wish to teach their own children. It was because she was probably aware of others who had withdrawn their children from school, that Khyra Ishaq's mother felt confident in doing so.
Would the new Children, Schools and Families Bill currently being debated have made any difference in the case of Khyra Ishaq? It is certainly possible. Although she notified the school of her intention to home educate, no letter was sent until some time later. As things stand, that was all that was necessary to make the matter quite legal; a simple letter sent to the local authority or school. Let's look at the relevant part of the notorious Schedule 1 and see what would be needed there;

holding at least one meeting with the child during the

registration period;

holding at least one meeting with a parent of the child during

the registration period;

if they consider that a person other than a parent of the child

is primarily responsible for providing education to the child,

Children, Schools and Families BillSchedule 1 — Home education: England

holding at least one meeting with that person during the

registration period;

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

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


In other words, while the child was actually being starved and mistreated, this new legislation would have made it a requirement that the local authority officers met and talked to Khyra Ishaq in her own home. They would have spoken to her mother as well. Since this woman was refusing to allow anybody to enter her house and would not even answer the door, I'm guessing that something like this, rather than the sending of a letter, might have acted as a deterrent.

In short, any parent can remove a child from school at any time, for any reason. Most intend to educate their children, some wish to harm them. Others don't intend to educate them at all. Those who have other intentions beside educating their children might very well be discouraged from deregistering their child if it means a formal interview with local authority officers in their own home. (Of course it may put off some genuine home educators as well, but that is another matter.) So if Khyra Ishaq's mother had known from the beginning that deregistering her child was a serious and formal business that would entail local authority officers entering her home and asking questions, I think it quite possible that she would not have embarked upon that course of action. Whether this would have saved the little girl's life is open to question. But it is probably fair to say that event would have taken a very different course if the mother of this child had not regarded taking her child out of school as something which could be done lightly and with impunity.

Friday, 29 January 2010

Khyra Ishaq and home education

Am I alone in wondering why there is no news coverage of the trial of those charged with murdering Khyra Ishaq? Normally, a horrible case of this sort would be guaranteed tabloid headlines, but in the last week or so, it has got no further than the Birmingham Mail. I can guess at a few reasons for this silence. One is that it is out in the provinces. If this hideous crime had been committed in London then I think it might be of more interest to the BBC and national press. Secondly, it involves a black family who also happen to be Muslim. This sort of thing touches upon many modern sensibilities. Since I am quite lacking in sensitivity about race, religion and so on, I thought I would outline a couple of points which have occurred to me about this case.

Just to remind readers of the circumstances behind this; Khyra Ishaq was a seven year old girl of Caribbean heritage. Her family were converts to Islam and the children were made to wear Muslim clothing to school. As result of this there was some teasing or bullying and in December 2007, the children were withdrawn from school to be educated at home. Several attempts were made to visit the family. People from the school came round, the police knocked on the door and a social worker also called. None were allowed into the house. Five months later, in May 2008, Khyra Ishaq died of infections caused by severe malnutrition; she starved to death.

While it is quite plain that Birmingham have fallen down badly on the job and not for the first time, we must not lose sight of who bears ultimate responsibility for this crime; those who starved and tortured this little girl to death. It is not hard to figure out why the local authority were not over zealous in pursuing this family and finding out what was happening to the child. Like Victoria Climbie, she was black. This means that local authority officers will pussyfoot about far more than they would if it were a white family. Nobody wants to be accused of racism! The child had been withdrawn from school, supposedly due to bullying she received for wearing a Muslim outfit. This is another of society's sacred cows. Where Islam is concerned, we must all tread carefully. (Understandable really. Upset a Muslim these days and the next thing you know you've got a crowd of bearded madmen calling for your decapitation). I strongly suspect that if this had been a white Christian family where there were welfare concerns about a very young child, a more active approach would have been adopted.

Readers will perhaps remember that the failure by Haringey Council in the Climbie affair involved a lot of "cultural sensitivity" towards those who were caring for the child. The fact that Victoria was plainly terrified of her aunt, for example, was attributed to the respect which black children traditionally have for their elders! Some of the worst failings were by officers who were themselves black. I can well imagine that as soon as people in Birmingham Council became aware that this was a black family and that there were allegations of Islamophobia being bandied about, they decided to take a very "softly, softly" approach.

How much did this have to do with home education? A bit, but probably not a great deal. Wicked people will always find a way to harm innocent children. It has happened before and it will happen again. All the safeguarding in the world will not stop a determined person from hurting a child. All the well known cases of child cruelty in recent years have involved children at school. At the same time, it must be remembered that it was because they found it so easy to deregister their children from school that the mother and partner of Khyra Ishaq were able to starve her to death in this leisurely fashion. Nobody set eyes on her for months after she was taken out of school. The parents stood on their rights to deny anybody access to their home and this is the reason why nobody noticed that the child was being starved to death. Five months is a long time for a child to be completely out of sight in this way. It would probably not have been possible to starve and torture her to death in this fashion had she still been at school.

The case of Khyra Ishaq is not a strong argument for the increased regulation of home education, but nor can the fact that her death followed deregistration from school and complete seclusion from society, be ignored entirely. Had the process of deregistration been a little more forbidding and formal, then it is quite possible that the family would not have taken this extremely serious step. As things stand, the withdrawal of a child from school in this way can be undertaken at a moments notice. This is probably not a good thing. Still, as I said above, wicked and cruel people will always find a way to hurt children. Tightening up the regulations surrounding home education might perhaps deter one or two cases like this, but they will not eradicate cruelty and neglect. These will always be with us.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

The "persecution" of German home educators

Like most people involved in the world of home education, I was pleased to see that the Romeikes, a German family of Christian home educators, had been granted asylum in the United States. I could not however help noticing that Judge Berman, who allowed their application, made some very strange points in his judgement.

Judge Berman's main concern seemed to be that the human rights of the parents had not been respected. In this , he showed the same oddly skewed thinking that Graham Badman showed when he talked of balancing the rights of parents against the rights of the child. As if the rights of the parents mattered a damn in the case! Judge Berman went on to describe home educators in Germany as being "persecuted" and claiming that the German courts were not concerned with the welfare of the child. This is quite ridiculous and puts the USA in opposition not only to Germany but also to Europe itself! Because this whole question of the "right" to home educate has been thrashed out in the European Court and the judgement there was actually quite sensible.

One home educating family in Germany managed to take their case all the way to the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany, which upheld the ban on home education. In 2003, the case was taken as far as the European Court of Human Rights. The judgement made there has troubled home educators not only in Germany, but also in this country, by its implications. The parent who brought the case argued that Germany's ban on home education contravened the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. This provides that a state shall respect parents' rights to ensure that their child's education will be in conformity with their own religious and philosophical beliefs. In September 2006, the court gave its ruling.

The European Court gave as its opinion that the plaintiff in the case was not the parent at all, but the children! The court went on to say that children were unable to foresee the consequences of their parents' decision to home educate, due to their young age. They further stated that schools were part of society and that the rights of parents did not extend so far as for them to be able to deprive children of their place in society. This was a blow for families in Germany, but the implications for other home educating parents in Europe were felt to be alarming. It was clear that there was nothing to stop either Britain or any other country in Europe from banning home education entirely if they felt like it.

In short, the European Court decided that the rights of the child were paramount and that the parents rights were not particularly important compared with those of their children. This is very right and proper. Because the truth is, children cannot really be expected to see the long term consequences of this, in effect, alienation from wider society. Before various home educating types start foaming at the mouth and typing comments here like retired Colonels from Tunbridge Wells, beginning, "Dear Sir, I would like to protest in the strongest possible terms about your view....." , perhaps I should explain exactly what I mean.

There are two main types of home educator; those, like me who chose to do it and others who were, as they saw it, forced into adopting home education. Those who are forced into it because the school does not address problems such as bullying or the child's special educational needs are usually fairly normal people who have taken an outlandish course of action for the perceived good of their child. They did not have any problem with the idea of schools, but the school failed them and now they must try something else. Those, on the other hand, who have from the beginning been committed to the idea tend to be a little.....eccentric.

I freely admit that I am myself a notable crackpot, whose views and opinions tend to differ from everybody else. That's my affair, I answer to nobody for it. But of course I have also raised my child to be a crackpot as well. Because of her unconventional upbringing, she is very different from almost every other teenage girl of her age. She dresses differently, speaks differently, thinks differently and behaves differently. This is almost entirely due to the fact that she never attended school. As it happens, she gets on fine at college, although some regard her as being stuck up and self righteous. The fact remains though, that I have single handedly turned her into a bit of crackpot herself by not allowing her to go to school.

As the European Court put it, my daughter could not have foreseen the consequences of home education when she was little. She enjoyed it, true, but she could not really have foreseen or understood the long term effects of not spending most of her time with other children. In a very real sense, she was divorced from mainstream society by my decision. The fact that she is happy to be who she is now is neither here nor there. There are almost certainly other home educated teenagers who have difficulties relating to other young people their age and are not happy about it. The fact is, home educating parents can, as a by product of their decision to home educate, end up raising a child who is very different from other children. This is surely a matter of concern, if for no other reason than that we all have to live in society and get along with others.

I am of course wholly and enthusiastically in favour of home education. However, as I said above, I am a bit of a crank. I could be wrong about this, as I am almost certainly wrong about so many other things. It is at least worth remembering that our children will have to live, work and survive in society when they are older. The European Court was quite right to point this out and remind people that a parent's rights do not extend quite as far as withdrawing a child from normal society. It is the child who will have to live with the consequences of our actions as home educating parents. I shall go on being a troublesome crackpot until the day I die, but I sometimes wonder to what extent I had the right to turn my own child into another irritating crank.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Serious case reviews and home educated children

I have been looking at a letter which Diana Johnson, the Schools Minister, sent to Tim Loughton MP yesterday. Questions have been asked of Graham Badman during the Public Committee sessions held on the Children, Schools and Families Bill. Specifically, he was asked about his assertion that home educated children are over represented in safeguarding cases.

In her letter, Diana Johnson says that in September the DCSF was aware of 140 current SCRs involving children aged 5-18. Only three of these concerned home educated children. She also mentions that 113 SCRs relating to children aged 5-18 were sent to Ofsted in the period between April 1st 2007 and August 26th 2009. Only one home educated child was to be found in these cases. She ends her letter with the astonishing admission;

"We concluded that the SCR figures are too low and not sufficiently robust for us to use with any confidence in drawing conclusions about the level of safeguarding risk amongst the home educating community."

This sums it up neatly. An attempt is made to hint that there may be more home educated children hidden in the figures, though. She says earlier that, "Many SCRs do not include the educational setting of the child.", a clear suggestion that some of those other cases might have home educated kids in them. Good try, Minister! The reason that most SCRs do not mention the school setting is that it is taken for granted that children attend school. You can be sure that if a child involved in an investigation was not at school, this would rate a few words in the report. That one case between April 2007 and August 2009, almost two and a half years, is certainly the only one.

In an Annex to her letter, Diana Johnson cites four cases where home educated children are concerned in SCRs. One of these is of course the Spry case! Again. They at least have the goodness to say;

"Education services maintained contact with the family on an annual basis, to monitor their education at home, and their education and situation appeared to be generally satisfactory. No child protection issues were noted"

In the Enfield case, it was noted of the mother;

"She co-operated with visits from the London Borough of Enfield Education Department in Aprils and may 2005 and June2006. The visiting officer had no concerns about the family or their circumstances and was satisfied with the programme of education proposed."

The Isle of Wight case concerned not the home educated child, but a sibling. The final case is suicide, no details given.

Neither the figures for SCRs nor the four cases given above, seem very impressive as evidence that home educated children are at greater risk of harm than those at school. In two of the cases above, local authority officers were actually visiting the home. The Enfield case had three visits in just over a year. As for the Isle of Wight, I don't think that one can cast the net so widely that harm to a sibling can be seen as a relevant factor in home education.

I think personally, that the DCSF would have done far better to stick to the educational benefits of a new inspection and monitoring regimen. Children can and will come to harm under any circumstances, whether at school or home. The evidence is not, to say the least of it, strong that they are more at risk when being educated at home than if they had been sent to school.

Monday, 25 January 2010

What the future holds

I have been re-reading Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution and one idea to be found there puts me in mind of the current situation with home education in this country. This is the notion that the Bolsheviks had that they were the "Vanguard of the Proletariat". The idea being that ordinary people cannot articulate their desires and need a small group of ideologues to do it for them and explain how things work and what to do next. I have a suspicion that some of the more voceiferous home educators, especially in organisations such as EO and HE-UK see themselves in just such a role.

The truth is, very few parents are actively involved in groups like Education Otherwise. Sure, many people join when they deregister their children from school, but most do not really become active. Ironically, many join on the advice of their local authority, many of who include details of EO on their own websites. A lot of people who don't actually join, look to these organisations for advice, join the lists and so on. It is of course people like Education Otherwise, HEAS and so on who have spearheaded the resistance to Graham Badman and the new Children, Schools and Families Bill. I think it fair to say that many parents, having found out about home education from the Internet, withdraw their children from school in the belief that it is an easy process and that the powers of local authorities are strictly limited.

In effect, we have a hard core of perhaps a few thousand dedicated home educators who fight campaigns, run groups and advise parents. In addition to that, there are perhaps another forty or fifty thousand, perhaps many more, who have taken their children out of school or never sent them in the first place. They are not particularly active in the home education world, but are comfortable in the knowledge that by and large their local authority will leave them be for most of the time. The dedicated hard core will of course continue to home educate, come what may. They will fight and campaign, organise petitions, lobby MPs and so on. It is the great mass of home educating parents that I am curious about; the ones who deregistered their children because they were assured that they could do so and nobody could stop them. I wonder what they will do when the going hots up a little over the next year or two?

Home education in this country has grown tremendously over the last decade or so. There are a number of reasons, not least the access to reliable information which the Internet affords everybody. Movements like this however ebb and flow. One moment, they are the big craze and then a few years later hardly anybody is doing it. I have no doubt that several thousand enthusiasts will stick at it, but I suspect that many of the hangers on and camp followers, those who only started because it was easy and increasingly popular, will fall by the wayside. It is one thing to send in an educational philosophy, or photographs of your kid building a treehouse or something. It will be quite another when the locla authority are breathing down your neck and asking what you are actually teaching the child! I am guessing that once the new act comes into force, if it does, then local authorities will move quickly with a few School Attendance Orders and perhaps prosecutions. This would at once put the wind up anybody who wasn't fully committed to the business. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see half the kids who are currently being taught at home, being returned to school in the first year or so.

Of course home education will remain an option for the truly dedicated, but the truly dedicated are always a small minority of any movement. Anybody who has started on this path without huge committment, and there are many such, will almost certainly throw in the towel. It will not mean the end of home education, but it will mean that those who home educate will have to be pretty determined and prepared to put some hard work in.

Postscript to the child missing from Bristol

Never let it be said that I am reluctant to admit when I have been wrong! In an act of monumental nosiness, I actually rang the woman who sent the email from Bristol to the Hampshire home educators. I have to report that it was, as suspected by many, sheer busybodying on the part of Bristol, with no welfare concerns at all. The woman who sent the email, Rachel Doling, says that it is policy now among all local authorities to try and find out when anybody with a child not at school moves to another district and then notify that local authority so that they can move in on the hapless family. This is apparently done as a matter of routine by all councils now, which I did not know. So, there it is! I was wrong and all those who thought that the local authority were being overzealous and meddling in matters which really are beyond their remit were absolutely right. Which only goes to show that it is always a good idea to check out the facts before one goes shooting one's mouth off.

Children missing from education - Part 2

In the cheerful, sunlit world inhabited by many home educating parents, there are no idle or disaffected children. Every child out of school is learning constantly, skipping through the world like a character from an Enid Blyton book. They see a bird and immediately ask about it's habits, they observe the starts and driven to study their nature and origins without any further prompting. If anybody doubts that a home educating parent is in fact providing a suitable education for her child, one only needs to ask. Having been assured that it is so, one must take the parent's word for the matter and move on to more pressing affairs. With the exception of a few freakishly rare and atypical cases, this is pretty much the picture of British home education as painted by the home educators themselves.

In the real world of course, things are slightly different. Here, it is pointless asking people what they are up to and then taking their word for it. This is because ordinary people lie all the time and people doing bad things lie even more. Ask a dishonest man about his tax liabilities and he will lie about them. That's why inspectors from the Inland Revenue demand evidence. Ask a lazy man if he has completed a job and he will lie to you as well; much easier just to go and look, rather than take his word for it. People lie to local authorities even more than they do to central government. They lie about the number of people living in their house, they lie in order to avoid planning permission problems, they lie in order to get a bigger dustbin, they lie to get their kids into schools that they want. Councils know this, which is why they seldom take anybody's word for anything. It's human nature. These are not wicked people, just ordinary people telling lies to avoid bother.

Of course wicked people tell even more lies than the rest of us. Ask a wicked person if he is beating or starving his child and he will probably deny it! The police can often tell when they have caught a bad person. This is because when they ask him questions, he will either sit in silence or reply, "No comment". Ordinary people explain simply what is going on.

With home educating parents, we are asked to believe that these commonly accepted principles must be turned on their head. Ask home educators about their child's education and you must just accept what they say. Everybody else that the local authority officers speak to will lie and deceive them at every touch and turn, but not the home educator! Their word is sacrosanct. This is a very strange idea. When a home educator replies "No comment" if asked a question, or refuses to speak at all, this is because she is acting on high principle. The usual rule of thumb, that such people are hiding something, cannot be applied to them.

For many working in local government, this is a strange state of affairs. What is it that sets home educating parents apart from everybody else in this way? Most parents will lie about their kids education. If they are appealing against the refusal of a school place at the school of their choice, they will lie their heads off. They will pretend that their child has special needs, is being bullied, has travel sickness, anything to win the appeal and get the school place. Ask a home educator any questions though and you must assume absolute honesty! It does not make sense.
It seems to me that home educators are asking for especially favourable treatment in their dealings with local authorities. In every aspect of every dealing with my council, I am obliged to provide evidence and paperwork in support of any statement which I make. It is the same for everybody. Home educators want to be a special case in that they simply assert a case to their local authority and there the matter ends. "Are you providing a suitable and efficient full-time education for your child?". "Yes, I am." replies the parent and the council promptly closes the file! It is an interesting idea, but i feel that if that is how it will be with home educators, then the rest of us should be given the benefit of the doubt when we try and swing the 25% discount on council tax for single person occupancy. And I have friend with children at school who want to get the school place of their choice without being asked for evidence of where they are living! In other words, if this is to be adopted, let it be a general principle and not only applicable to one group of individuals

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Children missing from education

There is no doubt at all that local authorities have a duty to identify children in their area who are not receiving efficient, full-time educations suitable to their age and aptitude. We know this to be so because Section 436A of the 1996 Education Act states it explicitly. We also know that Section 437 of the same act makes it clear that this duty does not apply to home educated children who are receiving a suitable education. So far, so good. Local authorities and home educating parents cannot help but agree on these two points. In other words, a child missing from education is a child who is neither a registered pupil at a school nor being educated elsewhere.

Now establishing whether a child is a registered pupil at a school is a fairly simple matter. Discovering if she is being educated elsewhere is not. It has been argued that if a local authority, while looking for children missing from education, comes across a home educated child, then they have a duty to check that this child is being receiving a suitable and efficient education. If they do not do this, how can they be sure that this is a child being educated "elsewhere" and not a child "missing from education"? This is a perfectly reasonable point. Many home educating parents however, counter with the undeniable fact that a lot of children at school are not receiving a suitable education; just look at the appalling academic results from some schools. Why should there be a presumption that a child at school is receiving an education, but that one at home is not? This too is s reasonable enough point.

This is likely to turn into quite a battlefield in the next couple of months. A campaign is about to be launched in various places, including parts of the capital, appealing for the public's help in tracking down children who are missing from education. Now all those children who are missing from education have one thing in common, one easily identifiable trait which, like the mark of Cain, immediately sets them apart from all other children. They don't go to school. One cannot expect the average citizen to be a great logician. The fact that all children missing from education are also missing school does not mean that all children missing school are missing from education. Never the less, the thrust of the advertising campaign which is about to hit the streets and television screens will be, "Do you know a child who is not at school?". Confidential telephone numbers will be provided so that such children may be reported to the relevant authorities.

Inevitably, many home educated children will be caught up in this process of finding children missing from education. The question is, "Does it matter?" Personally, I don't think it does. I have before told the story of how my own daughter was wholly unknown to the local authority until we ran into a truancy patrol. This was irritating, but hardly a disaster. I would feel precisely the same today if my daughter were under sixteen. There certainly are children missing from education and this is a bad thing. I am glad that the local authorities are making an effort to track them down; it is high time that something was done about this. At the same time, I can quite see that this will cause some little inconvenience to a certain number of home educating families, but this inconvenience must be set against the very real possibility that some of those children who are genuinely missing from education might come to harm. This is of course not the case with home educated children.

It is often the case in modern society that innocent citizens are put to some minor trouble for the greater good. The queue at the airport while luggage is searched, the checks at banks to deter identity theft. The inconvenience which home educating parents are likely to suffer as a result of this initiative will be very trifling; the worst case scenario will be that a family might perhaps become known to their local authority. This is perhaps a small price to pay for the security of knowing that a number of vulnerable children are likely to be brought to light and their welfare protected.

a child missing from education

Here is an email sent by a local government officer in Bristol to a home education group in the South of England;

On 16/12/09 15:05, "Rachel Dolling" wrote:
> > Hi
> > I was hoping that someone might be able to help me. I work in Bristol
> and
> have a family who have moved to Hampshire. Mum would not give us any
> details
> i.e address, district or what education she was providing for her child.
> She
> was home educating in Bristol. I was wondering if mum has been in contact
> with
> you? She will not answer her phone anymore after putting the phone down on
> us,
> on several occasions.
> >
> > Regards
> >
> >
> > Rachel Doling
> > Children Missing Education
> > Bristol Education Welfare
> > CYPS
> > Tel: 0117 3533686
> > Tel:0117 3532749

The general opinion among the home educating parents who have read this email is that at the very least, the officer who sent it has a frightful cheek. I cannot help but wonder though, what motives they imagine this woman has in trying to track down this parent.

In the first place, local authorities have a duty to identify children in their area who are missing from education. They certainly have no duty to try and identify children in other parts of the country! In other words, once this family are known to have moved out of Bristol, the local authority there is in the clear. They can close their file and let somebody else worry about whether children in this family are in fact receiving a suitable education. Th fact that Rachel Doling, the local authority officer who sent this email, is not adopting this strictly legalistic interpretation of the situation, suggests to me that she is actually concerned about the child in question.

Of course, it may be sheer busybodying, but if so it is hard to see what she gets from it. I get the impression that she is genuinely worried about this child and that she is trying to alert as many people as possible to the fact that there is something wrong about the situation. She must have been pretty desperate to email a bunch of home educators and expect that they would treat her enquiry seriously!

It seems plain that this mother has done a moonlight flit, leaving no forwarding address and moved to a completely different part of the country without leaving any forwarding address. This in itself is a very odd thing to do and makes one wonder what is going on. She evidently is very keen not to be seen by anybody from the local authority or even provide any information. This is a little strange too.

Of course, this is not the Soviet Union and our citizens are free to move where they will, without telling "the authorities". Even so, there is something distinctly odd about moving like this from one end of the country to the other without leaving any details. My guess is that Rachel Doling has cause to be worried about this child that she is not sharing with others, reasons that she feels the family need to be seen. I doubt that it is just an overzealous employee of a local authority making a fuss for the sake of it.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Autonomous learning and the growth of aliteracy

The idea that children might learn to read of their own accord, by osmosis as it were, was memorably described by David Bell, Chief Inspector of Schools in 2004, as being , "Plain crackers". This is pretty much the standard view among modern educationalists and the whole thrust in the teaching of reading in schools today is intensive work in synthetic phonics from a very early age; the aim being of course, to eradicate illiteracy. This is a laudable enough intention, to be sure, but it is beginning to look to some as though this determination to rid us of illiteracy has left the way open for the rise of a new problem; huge numbers of aliterate adults.

Aliterate people are those who, while capable of reading, choose not to do so. A survey in the USA a little while ago revealed that the modal number of books read by the average person in the previous year was zero! In other words, in answer to the question, "How many books did you read last year?", the commonest answer given was, "None". Where America leads, we follow, and it is quite acceptable and common these days for adults to say, " I don't read books". Even well known individuals like footballers and pop stars will say quite openly that they don't read books.

The teaching of reading in schools may well be efficient, but it is also desperately dull. Reading is treated as another sterile academic skill which the child must be pushed into acquiring in the shortest possible time. Little wonder that for many children reading is about attractive and pleasurable as reciting the multiplication tables! Inevitably, this means that many children would not dream of reading a book outside school, unless is was necessary. This attitude becomes fixed for many well before they leave primary school. In secondary school, the only books many of them will encounter are the novels that they are made to read for GCSE. Of course in many cases, they will not have to read the entire book, only selected chapters. Novels are thus reduced to a means, rather than an end in themselves. Just try suggesting to a fifteen year old boy who is studying for GCSEs that he might enjoy another book by the same author. If he is doing "Pride and Prejudice", ask if he has read "Emma". he will look at you as though you have taken leave of your sense! Why would he possibly wish to read a book upon which he would not be tested?

The relentless drilling in phonics and the perception that novels are only useful in that they will enable one to pass an examination, both rob reading of any attraction as an end in itself. It has been imposed upon the child from without and against his will. As soon as the compulsion ends, he will stop doing it almost as a matter of course. It is possible that when a child is left to her own devices to acquire the skill in her own time, the outcome might be very different. Things that we choose to do for our own satisfaction are generally things that we will do again and again if we find them enjoyable. this is in contrast to those things we are compelled to do. Even if the thing which we have been made to do is fun, the element of compulsion cannot help but remove some of its pleasure. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that while reading books for pleasure seems to be increasingly rare among schoolchildren, anecdotal evidence from the parents of autonomously educated children suggests that once they do take to the thing, they read a great deal for the sake of it.

There is something fundamentally unsound about any educational system which turns the reading of books into a chore. Any method of tuition or lack of tuition which makes it more likely that young people will pick up a book without prompting from an adult is to be commended. It would be interesting to conduct a large survey among schooled and autonomously educated children and see whether or not their attitudes to reading and books really are as different as personal observation suggests.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

School Phobia - a special kind of folie a deux?

Shakespeare wrote in the Sixteenth Century of, "The whining schoolboy with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail, unwillingly to school." Even four hundred years ago, the reluctance of children to attend school was all too familiar and generally seen as a matter for amusement, rather than anxiety. It is such an enduring image; the child feigning illness to avoid school, the boy like William in the Richmal Crompton stories, the cheeky urchins playing truant. It is only in recent years that this desire to skip school has somehow become a medical condition.

Many psychologists are uneasy about the very idea of "School Phobia", preferring the more neutral expression, "School Refusal". Never the less, some psychologists do become involved in cases of "School Phobia" and it has grown to be a more or less accepted condition. What is certain is that a few years ago, many of those children who have now been deregistered from school and educated at home due to this problem would have simply stuck at it and remained. So what has changed?

For one thing of course, there is now a widespread realisation that not going to school is a realistic option. Whereas at one time LEAs would have chivvied parents into sending their kids back to school, a lot of people simply won't wear this any more and refuse to co-operate. The result is thousands of children who are not at school because, basically, they don't want to go. This is a curious state of affairs. As a number of sceptical researchers have pointed out, most of us have to get up in the mornings and do things we would rather not and indeed go to places, when we would prefer to stay at home. Is there such a disorder as "Getting Up in the Morning Phobia"? "Going to Work Phobia"? "Tackling the Housework Phobia"? What is it that makes "School Phobia" a genuine syndrome and not just a description of a child's disinclination to do something?

In order to make sense of this whole business of school phobia, it will be necessary to look at two very different concepts, the first of which is separation anxiety. Separation anxiety, when an adult or child becomes anxious about becoming separated from a person or thing, is a natural part of growing up. All babies display separation anxiety to a greater or lesser degree, although it normally withers away shortly after children start school. A few children though remain anxious about being separated from their mother. There are scenes at the school gates, tantrums and tears, sometimes the child can be physically sick or have an attack of something approaching hysteria. Of course, mothers too can suffer from separation anxiety of this kind. We are all familiar with cartoons showing the mother and not the child in tears after the moment of separation on the first day of school! For some mothers, this can be a serious problem. The one person in their lives who truly loves them absolutely and unconditionally is moving away from them. Worse still, if this process continues, then the object of their affection will gradually be moving further and further away; making new friends, acquiring new interests. It can be a very sad affair, this starting school.

Of course for most mothers, as indeed for most children, this is a passing phase. A few tears, a little sadness and then it is over. For others though, this can turn into something a little more serious. It can, in effect, become a folie a deux.

Folie a deux is a pathological condition in which two people share a delusion or mental illness. We see it sometimes in crimes, where two people encourage each other in their peculiar behaviours until the result is murder or occasionally a series of murders. Think Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. Each member of the folie a deux has an inclination in a certain, dysfunctional direction. Alone, this would probably go no further. The trouble begins when two people who share a particular strange tendency somehow get together. Then they can encourage each other and perhaps put into action what each by themselves would only daydream about. And this looks very much like what is sometimes happening in cases of "School Phobia".

Picture the scene. A child is suffering from the normal jitters and anxieties which accompany the beginning of school life. He looks for reassurance to his mother. Is she calm and collected about this business? Are his fears wholly unjustified? In most cases, the answer is yes. If there is any unhappiness on the mother's part, she takes good care to conceal it, at least until she is out of sight! What happens though if she is feeling bereft and inconsolable herself and allows her child to see this? Her child picks up on the mothers upset and becomes more distressed. This in turn makes his mother increasingly anxious. Before long, the two of them are playing a double handed game of "Separation Anxiety", winding each other up to ever greater pitches of misery. Sometimes, they persuade themselves that the only solution is to drop school entirely!

It is probably no coincidence that the peak times for withdrawing children from school in order to educate them at home are the first year of infants school and also the first year or so after starting secondary. These are of course also the peak years for "School Phobia" to manifest itself. I would be very curious to know if the scenario which I have outlined above is a common one. I know that it does happen, but have no idea how frequently. Those who have worked with very young children will perhaps recognise some of what I have talked about here. For some years, I helped run a support group for parents and children under five, many of whom suffered from separation anxiety. There was a psychologist, Community Psychiatric Nurse, social worker and me. It was a matter of common discussion among us that the mothers themselves were involved in the game and a large part of the work in tackling the problem was with the parents rather than the children. Some of these children did go on to suffer from "School Phobia". Because home education was not seen then as a viable option, this was over twenty years ago, none were deregistered. This was probably a good thing.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Measuring an education

Over the last few millenia there have been many debates as to what constitutes "a good education". The Greeks had one idea, the Romans another. Through the Renaissance and into the Age of Enlightenment, learned men and women struggled to define just what we mean by "education" and what makes one type of education better than another. Her Majesty's Government are racked by no such doubts and concerns. They know that a good education is one which results in the passing of at least five GCSEs at grades A*-C, including English and Mathematics.

I would imagine that few home educators subscribe to such a narrow view of a good education as does our present government. We are left with a slight problem. How do we know if a home educated child has received, or is receiving, a "good education"? This is a question of more than academic importance. The suspicion is that if the Children, Schools and Families Bill is passed, then some home educated children will as a result find themselves compelled to return to school. If some of the less restrained parents are to be believed, this could end with nervous breakdowns and even suicides. That being so, the search for a definition of a "good education" could conceivably be regarded as a matter of life and death!

Many home educating parents speak glowingly of what one might call the intangible benefits of home education. The leisurely and stress-free pace of the process, the empathy and compassion which they see in their children, the freedom to develop as who they wish to be, rather than mindless robots taking the same string of GCSEs as the other thirty kids in their class. All this is well enough and I am sure that such parents have a point. However, Kindness and altruism are traits which most parents see in their children; these characteristics need not be limited to those taught at home. There is also an effort to allow children a greater choice in which examinations they will take, so that the children in a class of thirty might all have what are known as individualised learning plans. In other words, some of the supposed benefits of home education are, at least in theory, being extended to the state school system.

If parents of home educated children wish to persuade everybody else that their children are actually getting some benefit from home education, then they are going to have to come up with a demonstrable, objective measure of just what it is that those children are getting. This might prove relatively easy for children with special educational needs. Relaxed, one-to-one tuition and activities designed to stimulate the child can often be provided better at home than in a crowded and understaffed unit. Similarly, those whose children were bullied may well be able to make out a case on safeguarding grounds, although it remains to be seen how this will be viewed under the new laws. This still leaves the great mass of home educated children. Those of normal ability whose parents simply prefer having them at home. I am wondering what, if any reasons the parents of such children will be able to give for not coaching and entering their children for examinations, assuming of course that all the recommendations of the Badman Report are implemented and that access to GCSEs is assured.

In short, how will these parents show that their children are receiving a good education, at least as good as that offered by the local schools? If five GCSEs is not the preferred measure of education for such people, what is? What do most home educating parents mean by an education? How will they define it in such a way that the local authority will readily be able to distinguish the child at home who is not taking GCSEs and is never the less receiving a good education and another child who is not taking GCSEs because his parents don't want to go to all the trouble of teaching him? What is the defintion of a good home education, if not five GCSEs?

I am not the only person asking such questions and musing about this subject. If the Children, Schools and Families Bill does become law, then every home educating parent in the land will need to be considering this very question before too long. It might be as well to start now!

Monday, 18 January 2010

Should deregistering a child from school be so easy?

Yesterday evening we had a BBC crew round the house for a programme being made about home education. I was asked whether I thought that new regulations were needed and I replied that I was even more strongly in favour of this than I had been last year. A couple of posts on HE lists today have really given me food for thought in this direction. Lets look at them and see what we think.

On the HE-UK list, the mother of a fifteen year old boy who "hates school" is being pursued by her local authority. They are threatening to prosecute her for her son's truancy. Education does not get much of a mention by this mother. We are told that the son is being seen by the local mental health team and suffers from "anger problems". The whole family are apparently receiving therapy. If ever there was a case for a child being given help and support, this is it. The help could most easily be delivered at school, but of course the boy can, as things stand, be withdrawn at a moment's notice. There is little suggestion that his mother wishes to educate him; she is just seeking an easy way out of a tricky problem, namely the threat of prison.

Over on the EO list is a mother of two children, one nine and the other thirteen. Their mother has withdrawn them from school and since then;

"we're just taking it easy at the moment and not getting up to much, I supposed we will learn as we go along?"

Unbelievable. She goes on to say;

"I'd like to meet some more people in the local area so I can get some more ideas as to what to do with them."

Call me Mr. Fuddy Duddy, but might she not have considered "what to do with them" before, rather than after, they were deregistered ? The truth is that this is such a straightforward and simple procedure that there is very little incentive to so. Kid doesn't want to go to school? Hey, why not deregister him? It only takes the cost of a stamp!

I have to say that this is a truly shocking state of affairs. I am passionately committed to home education and always have been. But that parents would withdraw their children from school to avoid prosecution for truancy in this way or deregister two children and only then start thinking about "what to do with them" is utterly appalling. So when the programme on home education is screened in a couple of weeks time, I hope that viewers will understand why I was so vehement. There is something dreadfully wrong with the present arrangements for home education in this country. It is not that I am all in favour of structured education and opposed to autonomous learning. It is that I have seen and still see parents like those mentioned above who withdraw their children from school simply because it is so easy. In both cases, there is no talk at all of providing an education. Withdrawing the children from school is the object of the exercise and only once it has been done will anybody consider what the children might need next. The sooner the Children, Schools and Families Bill 2009 becomes law, the better.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Where are the Hot-Housers?

When John Stuart Mill, the famous philosopher was born, his father decided that he could not trust any school to teach him properly. His father was a proponent of what we would now call "Hot-Housing", where a child's intellectual development is deliberately stimulated and accelerated with the intention or at least hope, of producing a genius. James Mill accordingly taught his son at home from infancy. By three, the child was learning Greek. By eight, he had read Xenophon in the original and was learning Latin. His academic achievements throughout adolescence were outstanding until, at the age of twenty, he suffered a nervous breakdown.

More recently, Ruth Lawrence was taught at home by her father until she entered Oxford University at the age of eleven to study mathematics. She graduated at thirteen and subsequently married a man thirty years older than she was herself, almost the same age as her father in fact! This sort of home education, where pushy parents set out to coach their children intensively and get them to overtake their contemporaries at school does not seem to popular among home educators today. Perhaps it was always rare. I am however a little surprised that one does not hear more about such cases. After all, home education is more widespread now than it has ever been. There must surely be more parents like this than in the past. There was a fourteen year old boy recently in the newspapers who has been offered a place at Cambridge to study mathematics, but this is the first such case that I have heard of for years.

I suppose that the motivations of such parents are fairly clear and obvious. They feel that schools are pretty useless and that they can make a better job of the whole business. In other words, their primary motivation is education. They feel that modern schools are not rigorous enough and do not push children hard enough. More common is the opposite case, where parents are worried that children are being pushed too hard and that schools are too demanding. On sometimes wonders if such parents actually know just how slack the modern educational system is! Even the Government's standard measure of a "good" education, five GCSEs at grades A*-C, really guarantees little more than that the child who has passed them is not completely illiterate.

It is now perfectly possible to pass GCSE English without having read a book. This is not a Daily Mail scare story about the decline in school standards, but simply the sober truth. I know children who have actually been advised by their teachers not to read the book they are studying in case it confuses them! They are told to limit themselves to the relevant chapters. Other subjects are in a similarly pitiful case. "Empathy" has invaded every topic from English to history. It is now creeping into science. Instead of hard facts, children are constantly being asked how people "feel".

I suppose that I am a little puzzled as to why so many parents are apparently misinformed about the state of our schools. I find it literally beyond belief that anybody could claim with a straight face that children at modern British schools are under pressure! Still, there it is. I would be interested to know how many parents who did not send their children to school did so because they wished to give them a better education as opposed to those who felt that their children would be pushed too hard if they sent them to school.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

"Fewer home educated children will be deemed to be receiving an inadequate education........

In a recent letter about the revised impact assessment of the Children, Schools and Families Bill, Diana Johnson, the Schools Minister, says she expects that a year after the passage of the bill that,

"fewer home-educated children will be deemed to be receiving an inadequate education."

Now this seems to me to be a pretty good outcome, if true. Others are already getting worked up though and suspecting that this statement signals the launching of an assault upon the rights of home educating families.

I suppose that there are several possibilities to consider about the DCSF position. Firstly, let us take Ms. Johnson's statement at face value and assume it to be true. If more home educated children will actually be receiving a good education after the passage of the bill, then this can only be a good thing. It would be a good thing whether this meant that their parents were now being compelled to provide them with a good education or that the children had stopped being home educated and had been sent to schools which were providing them with a good education. I think most people would agree with this.

However, it is always possible I suppose, that Diana Johnson isn't being truthful. It could also be the case that she is mistaken. To begin with, let us consider the chances that she is being deliberately untruthful about this. I cannot for the life of me see any motive at all for this. I can't see why she should want to reduce the numbers of home educated children in this country for any other reason than that she believes that some of them are receiving an inadequate education. Nor can I offhand see any motive for anybody else deliberately to lie about this matter. I think it fair to assume that from Diana Johnson at the top, all the way down to the lowliest of local authority officers visiting homes, all have the welfare of children at heart and no other motive.

Could Diana Johnson be mistaken then in thinking that fewer home educated children will be receiving an inadequate education after the Children, Schools and Families Bill has come into force? This too seems unlikely. I think that we would all agree that it would have some effect upon the situation with regard to home education in this country. In other words the ratios and numbers are bound to change in some way as a result of the new legislation. Suppose that the numbers of home educated children were reduced more or less at random? That would certainly have the effect of meaning that fewer home educated children were receiving an inadequate education, but of course it would also have the effect that fewer were receiving an adequate education as well! I don't think this can be what Ms. Johnson has in mind. I imagine that she means that some children who are currently judged to be receiving an inadequate education at home, might be forced to go to school. This would certainly reduce the numbers of inadequately educated children taught at home. The only problem here is that they might very well end up going to schools where they would receive an inadequate education. So again, the actual number of inadequately educated children taught out of school would certainly go down, but it would not be to anybody's advantage! This is probably not what Diana Johnson has in mind either.

The only possibility which remains is that it is planned that all the home educated children in England and eventually Wales as well, will be monitored regularly and checks will be made to see whether or not they are receiving an adequate education. If they are not, then their parents will be offered advice and help, including access to examination centres and so on, until their prospects have substantially improved. Those who refuse to co-operate will ultimately face the prospect of a School Attendan
ce Order. I am pretty sure that this is the plan at the back of the new impact assessment. It does not sound particularly sinister to me and it is almost certainly being done with the best of intentions. Without any doubt, this scheme would ensure that fewer home educated children were receiving an inadequate education.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Amendments to the Children, Schools and Families Bill

As far as I can gather, those home educators opposed to the above piece of legislation have two hopes; two possible courses of events which they believe might prevent the provisions relating to home education ever reaching the Statute Book.

The first of these possibilities is that the bill will simply run out of time. That is to say that things will drag on until the election in May and that the Government will be forced to abandon some of the legislation which was announced in the Queen's speech in November. It is possible that this will happen, but rather unlikely. For one thing, this bill is about education and so very popular with many people, including the electorate. It was designed to be that way. All the talk of increased power for parents and the licensing of teachers has gone down very well with a lot of parents. Educational standards are still plummeting and somebody must be to blame. Hey, it must be the schools and teachers! Hurray, the Government is going to give more power to us to call schools to account. I simply cannot see this bill being abandoned and it is currently moving very quickly through the system.

The other hope is that some amendments will be made to the clauses which specifically relate to home education. There is another problem here. This is a very long bill and most of the amendments concern all sorts of other things that have nothing at all to do with home education. Since the Government will be in a hurry during the run up to the election, they are liable to grow increasingly impatient with delays. The Equalities Bill, currently with the Lords, had over two hundred amendments scheduled. Discussion of all these was allocated just one day. I doubt if the amendments relating to home education will even be discussed in the end. It is true that some MPs are determined to draw attention to the new regulations, but they may not get a chance. It is entirely possible that the Government will impose a guillotine on the business. This means that there will be a certain fixed time for the amendments and then the talking ends and the bill goes to the Lords. If the House have not reached the amendments relating to home education by that time; that's just too bad.

It is true that it then needs to clear the Lords, but with the quickening pace over the next few months, that will perhaps not delay it for long. All the MPs who are ringing their hands and telling home educators that they share their pain at these iniquitous proposals know all this very well. They know that the Tory whips are already getting together with the Labour whips and working out a deal about what will go through in the wash up and what will not. People like Barry Sheerman will emerge looking like heroic strugglers for the rights of home educators, a man who did his best but was ultimately defeated by the faceless men in grey suits who did a deal behind his back. I'm sure that he'll still pick up a few votes as a result, as well as gaining a reputation as the champion of civil rights.

My own feeling is that this bill will almost certainly go through and that home educating parents should be aiming at a rather different target. The Children, Schools and Families Bill is essentially an enabling act. It is a bare framework which says very roughly what will be happening. It does not say in any detail how these things will happen. These details will be fleshed out later in a series of Statutory Instruments. In other words, a statement of educational provision is mentioned in the bill, but nobody has the least idea of what is meant by this. Most of the provisions are similarly vague. Here is where there is scope for parents to work together with local authorities to thrash out a deal which both sides could live with. Before the DCSF starts handing out Statutory Instruments to define this aspect or that, perhaps such things as what constitutes a "suitable education", they will consult with the local authorities. If the local authorities then announced that they had reached an amicable agreement with home educators as to what both sides could live with, then the Government of the day would be delighted; it would mean one less area of conflict.

I am no longer a home educator, but if I were I should be thinking very seriously about starting a dialogue with local authorities now and working alongside them to present a programme to central government which all parties agreed on. If this is not done, then the local authorities and the DCSF will simply sit down together and work out what is best for home educated children and parents will have no say in it at all.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Towards "informal learning".....

Somebody in one of the comments recently was recommending that I check out Alan Thomas' stuff. I decided to fetch down my copy of "How Children Learn at Home", which he co-authored with Harriet Pattison. (Continuum 2007). A better title for this book would perhaps have been "How Children don't Learn at Home". Unfortunately, it was every bit as terrible as I remembered. What a pompous windbag the man is! Here he is talking about, I think, parents reading to their children;

"Children may not perceive a need to read if they are busy with other things and have adults or older children around who are willing to fulfil their literacy needs".

I know that he is popular with many home educators, but really; "fulfil their literacy needs"! His thesis is that many parents set out on the home educating lark with good intentions, intending to do a lot of work with their children, but that after a while they more or less give up. Of course he does not put it quite like that. Instead, he says things such as;

"While most families started out expecting to educate their children in the time honoured way, by carefully planning lessons based on structured teaching materials, few maintained this over any length of time"

He seems to view this as a good thing, but some of the accounts from parents are very sad. Here is one talking wistfully about what she feels her children have missed out on;

"I sometimes think of all the hours that school children spend in classes, they must be there when lots of information is given to them, how much they retain I don't know, but at least they have been told it. My kids haven't heard, I would love to have told them but they never asked."

Many of the parents seem to have given up on teaching their children because the kids cut up rough about it. There is an air of regret though in much of what is said. These parents know deep inside that they should be doing more with their children, but it just does not seem to happen. Partly this is because of what Thomas calls "Children's resistance to formal teaching and learning". Reading the accounts of the parents though, I think it is also because some of them lead pretty chaotic and disorganised lives. Others seem to be anxious that their children won't like them if they keep trying to educate them. For example;

"Sometimes I think we should do something but mostly things just happen.... I started off more formally doing work but gave it up because she began to find it boring. I still think they should do something but mostly things just happen."

Heaven forbid that a child should be expected to do something boring! Thomas encourages this defeatist attitude quite openly. He says;

"There is simply no point in continuing when children are not listening, or going on asking for more effort if they are not responding."

The first question that I would ask myself if I found that a child were not listening to what I was teaching would not be, "Had I better give up at this point?". More likely I would say to myself, "Am I droning on in an irritating and uninteresting fashion, thus boring the child?" If the answer were yes, then I would set out to make the teaching more stimulating in some way. It would be lazy and irresponsible of me to say, as Thomas suggests, "There's simply no point in continuing, the child is not listening". And why on earth not ask for more effort if the child is not responding? I don't get this at all.

The overall picture which emerges from this book is of parents who want to teach their children, know they ought to be teaching them, but have given up because they are worried about upsetting their children or concerned that their children will dislike them if they continue teaching them. Shocking approach for a man of this professional standing to endorse.

The local authorities already have all the powers they need; they just don't use them

Many of those campaigning against the provisions of the new Children, Schools and Families Bill use the above argument when speaking to MPs and others who they feel might be sympathetic. It is, on the face of it, pretty convincing. After all, a local authority which suspects that a home educated child is not being educated properly can take the parents to court. They hardly ever do so though; such cases are as rare as rocking horse shit. Why should this be so?

When a child is withdrawn from a maintained school in this country, the school generally contacts the local authority and notifies them of the fact. Most local authorities will then get in touch with the family and ask for some sort of evidence that the child is receiving a full time education suitable to his age and ability. Not all local authorities bother to do this; the London Borough of Enfield, for example, does not usually do so. However, most do. Parents then write back explaining what they are doing with their child and either accepting or declining a visit according to how bloody minded they are feeling. Often, the stuff they send to the local authority is exceedingly vague and waffly. Instead of being specific about what their child is doing in mathematics or English, they trot out a load of guff about how little Johnny is fulfilling his capabilities in a variety of ways and that they are offering him learning opportunities in many settings. This sort of thing has often been cut and pasted from some Internet site, Home Education UK being a popular source. This can by the way afford a good deal of innocent amusement for those who are monitoring elective home education. Sometimes, two or three educational philosophies are word for word identical apart from the child's name!

Most of these children are probably receiving some sort of education, even if it isn't precisely the kind of thing that the officers of the local authority would like to see. Some are definitely not receiving even the most rudimentary education. How do you identify these children and either make their parents educate them or get them back into school? This is not easy. Sometimes, the local authority has an idea from speaking to the school which parents are likely to be making at least some attempt to educate their child. If they feel that certain parents are not doing so, then they can serve a notice requiring them to satisfy the authority that they are doing so. Some parents give in at this point and return the child to school. Others send in more paperwork. Sometimes this is a curriculum accompanied by typed work, supposedly completed by the child in question. Of course without actually speaking to the child, it is impossible to know whether or not this is actually his work. I certainly know of more than one case where a parent has put together documents like this which are wholly fraudulent and misleading. What happens if the local authority is still not satisfied?

The next step is to apply to the courts for a School Attendance Order. This is very chancy and quite expensive for the local authority. Because the definition of a suitable education is so vague, it is not hard for parents to persuade magistrates that their children are receiving a "suitable" education. here is part of the definition from Bevan v Shears 1911;

"In the absence of anything in the bye-laws providing that a child of a given age shall receive instruction in given subjects, in my view it cannot be said that there is a standard of education by which the child must be taught. The court has to decide whether in their opinion the child is being taught efficiently so far as that particular child is concerned."

This is not particularly helpful. What about this, from a case in 1985;

"Primarily equips a child for life within the community of which he is a member, rather than the way of life in the country as a whole."

It is all but impossible for a local authority to make a case against a parent based upon such concepts. The result is of course that few bother to do so. Why drag the Borough Solicitor away from his desk and get him to spend the morning in court for this sort of thing? It's waste of his time and everybody else's.

The case would be very different if there were a definition of a suitable education which included a rough guide of what children should be achieving at various ages. Perhaps that a child should be reading fluently by the age of twelve, always assuming that there are no special educational needs. Or maybe that a child of ten should be thoroughly familiar with the four basic arithmetical operations, or perhaps that he was able to write. Without clear benchmarks of this sort, of course local authorities will not and cannot exercise the power to force parents to educate their children. To claim that they already possess the powers to do so is simply not true. Unless there is a way of establishing whether or not a child is receiving an education, then there is no way of finding out the opposite; that he is not receiving an education.

As I said above, most of these children are probably receiving some sort of education, but mixed in with them are certainly children who are not. How are the officers of the local authority to distinguish between these two cases? From reading an educational philosophy which has been downloaded from the Internet, how are they too know which of these children have parents who actually intend to educate their children at home and which parents have withdrawn their children and have no intention at all of educating them? This is a genuine conundrum, the answer to which is presumably known to home educating parents but not by the local authorities! Of course, a home visit and quiet chat with the child in question would go some way to helping resolve this problem, but many parents are bitterly opposed to both these moves. All suggestions for ways of resolving this dilemma would be viewed with great interest.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

The Children, Schools and Families Bill

Those trusting folk who were foolish enough to rely upon Conservative and Liberal Democrat promises for help in opposing the passage of the new Children, Schools and Families Bill might perhaps have received a nasty shock yesterday. The chamber was all but deserted during the Second Reading of the bill. Presumably all those MPs who swore solemnly to uphold the rights of home educating parents had remembered that they had other, more urgent, business to attend to that day; like getting ready for a general election in four months.

Personally, I have nothing at all against the new legislation, but I always thought that from a tactical viewpoint it was a great mistake to put everything into a "No Surrender" policy which left no room for manoeuvre. If only home educators and the organisations which represent them had shown a willingness to negotiate, a bit of give and take, then the provisions made in Schedule 1 of this bill could probably have been altered a little. As it is, they will get the whole package of measures as designed by Ed Balls and his civil servants.

Things are now moving along with the inevitability of Greek tragedy, those who hoped to stop this piece of legislation having massively underestimated this Government's ability to ram through laws that they want, disregarding any opposition. The new Equality Bill, for example, had no fewer than two hundred amendments scheduled for debate. The Government allowed just one day for this. As we approach the general election, plans are already being made between the two main parties for what is known as "Wash up Week". This means that the Government and the opposition engage in a lot of horse trading to establish which bits of the Government agenda will get through parliament before the election is called. The Tories will certainly wish to block some of the intended legislation, perhaps that relating to banks. The price for this will be allowing other bills, such as the Children, Schools and Families Bill to pass in their entirety. This decision has probably been taken already, which would explain why Tory MPs didn't think it worth sticking around for the Second Reading yesterday.

When all's said and done, the new bill is likely to be pretty popular with ordinary people, including MPs. It offers more power to parents, brings in the Rose primary curriculum and offers one-to-one tuition for failing pupils. The licensing system for teachers is likely to be viewed favourably as well. Most people will think that if teachers need to be checked regularly to see if they are up to the job, then why not parents who are also acting as teachers?

As I say, this does not bother me much. I find it slightly irritating though that those campaigning for this bill to be stopped should not have realised what was going to happen. Do they really know nothing about guillotines on debates? Did they not know that the proximity to a general election would make it more likely that this bill would be passed rather then less likely? Did it not occur to anybody that if home educators were prepared to compromise, then they might have salvaged something from all this? Were they really so innocent as to take what a load of Tory MPs were telling them at face value? I do not know the answers to any of these questions, but I have not the least doubt that the Children, Schools and Families Bill will be passed before the beginning of May.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Teaching young children to read; is it a good idea?

Rather than respond to each individual comment on this subject, it seems to me to be worth making a new post. I think that part of the problem here might be that when people talk about "teaching children to read", they might be thinking of a formal lessons in synthetic phonics or a classroom setting, something along those lines. Let's see how the process actually works.

We can forget all about morphemes, phonemes, phonics, blending and sequencing; they have nothing at all to do with the case. Indeed, a completely different part of the brain is involved in this sort of work, in fact a different hemisphere entirely. Let us start with the fact that babies like one-to-one interaction with an adult. We would all agree with that proposition, I suppose. This can take the form of singing nursery rhymes, playing peekaboo, all sorts of games. One can also use large wooden inset boards with one or two brightly coloured, chunky geometric shapes; say a red circle and a blue triangle. Any baby will enjoy fitting these into the board and having a parent smile and laugh when this is accomplished. A good spin-off here is that the constant talk during this makes it possible to teach the baby the words "Circle" and "Triangle". This sort of pattern recognition takes place in the right hemisphere of the brain, not the hemisphere which is used for language and reading generally. Although, curiously enough, it is used in reading with those diagnosed with dyslexia.

Let us now move on to smaller inset boards, with coloured images of cats and dogs or lorries and helicopters. Again, all babies enjoy playing with these with an adult. Now let us move on again and use an inset board with large wooden numbers. So far, everything has been a series of enjoyable games for the baby. There is plenty of success and no failure, combined with the undivided attention of an adult. Hard to imagine many small children who would not like this! Just as the baby can now say "dog" and recognise its shape in the inset board, now she moves on to saying "Eight" and recognising its shape. We're still using right hemisphere here. Now we write very large numbers, maybe a foot high and show them to the baby. She sees them and say "Eight" or "Two" or whatever. when we are out with the baby, we point out such numbers and the baby, who can be as young as twelve months or eighteen months, is delighted to shout out the names of the numbers.

Next, we do the same with simple words. They are big and chunky and will usually be in the form of a specially made inset board. In no time at all, the child is reading words as shapes and shouting them out when she sees them. There is no problem in a baby acquiring a sight vocabulary of a hundred or so words in this way. Since about half the words we use from day to day are roughly a hundred words like "the", "it" and "that", this is a great start to reading. You will observe that we have not had to worry about the alphabet, irregular spelling or anything else of the sort. most importantly of all, the whole thing has been a game for the baby, without the stress of possible failure. If she does not like it, stop. A few ten minute sessions throughout the day will usually do the trick.

What are the advantages for the baby of doing this? In other words, why should we bother and not just leave it to seven or eight? In the first few years of a baby's life, process called apoptosis takes place. Neurones that are not being used whither away and die. Those which are being used have strengthened connections. In other words, the brain is reconstructing itself and it does so according to which parts are being used the most. If a child is deprived of language stimulation, this can cause connections to shrivel up. If there is an enriched environment; the connections are strengthened. The same thing can happen with music and also pattern recognition. After the first few years of life, this process of making new connections becomes slower and less effective. It is therefore a good idea to stimulate those parts of the brain that we wish to see develop. Rats kept in an impoverished environment actually have smaller brains than those who have grown from birth in an enriched environment. The same thing happens in the brains of human infants. Think children in Rumanian orphanages. If this lack of stimulation lasts too long, the effects are irreversible. I dare say we all know about Genie, the girl who was deprived of all language stimulation until the age of thirteen. She never caught up, was never able to acquire grammar.

I cannot really see why anybody would avoid playing games of this sort with babies. I can readily understand why formal lessons in phonics would be a lousy idea for very small children, but nobody in their senses would try such a thing anyway or so it is to be hoped. I am sure that this could put a child off reading.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

The problem with doctoral theses.....

One quite regularly sees little snippets in the newspapers, particularly the gutter press, with alluring headlines such as "Boffin says time travel is possible" or "Rev claims Jesus visited England" or even "Research shows home educated children do better than those at school"! Often, these articles are based upon dissertations which have been written in order to obtain a doctorate. A giveaway is that the researcher is usually called "Dr" Hockenglocker or the "Rev" Jones. Seldom is it mentioned in the text that the researcher was not actually a "Dr" or "Rev" when he conducted the work; it was done in order to earn him the title. So it was with the piece in the Telegraph the other day about early reading. Despite the impression given there, this research was not carried out by "Dr" Sugatte at all, but by plain old Mr Sugatte. This may seem like pedantic nit picking, but there is a reason to be cautious about relying upon the findings of doctoral theses like these.

The doctoral dissertation must follow certain conventions. Abstract, table of contents, references cited, coherent argument and so on. The actual subject is chosen together with one's supervisor. The aim is generally to be original, daring, even controversial. There is no need at all for the conclusions to be true or even for you to believe them yourself. They must be plausible of course and not completely mad. After all, you will be cross-examined on the thing during the course of a viva, but some dissertations are pretty outlandish and zany. For example, many years ago at a major theological college, one fellow set out to prove in his dissertation that John the Baptist had lived at Qumran, the desert retreat where the Dead Sea Scrolls are supposed to have been written. This too found its way into the papers, to the horror of the author and amusement of his colleagues. He had not of course actually believed for a moment that John the Baptist was an Essene; the thing had been an intellectual exercise.

One does not in general write a dissertation which proves what everybody thinks anyway. A psychology student writing about education would be unlikely in the extreme to write a thesis which set out to show that the best education for children would be one provided full time at school, beginning when they were rising five and ending on the third Friday in June of the year that they turned sixteen. You want something a little more radical than that; perhaps a suggestion that children need not attend school at all and actually do better at home.

Unless people understand the background to these things, they are likely to take the slightly wierd ideas which from time to time emerge in this way as mainstream research. This is why it can be misleading for newspapers to present such things as having been conducted by Dr so and so at such and such university. I confess that I was surprised and not a little disgusted to see the Telegraph do this. Home educating parents often latch on to odd pieces of work like this and ignore mainstream research on the subject entirely. This can be hazardous.