Monday, 25 January 2010

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


  1. You really are determined to miss the point, aren't you, Simon?

    As I pointed out yesterday, there are two separate, although related issues here. One is whether or not a child is getting a suitable education and the other is who is responsible for determining this.

    IF the parent is legally responsible, THEN suitability is determined by the parent and it is nothing to do with LAs UNLESS they discover ('it appears') that the parent is patently failing.

    If we are talking about whether or not children are getting a suitable education, we need to look at ALL children, not just home educating ones because we have abundant data to show that 20% of children educated by local authorities do not receive a suitable, efficient education.

    What the debate is about is a) whether LAs should have a legal responsibility in ensuring that all children receive a suitable, efficient, full-time education and b) whether there is a minimum requirement for the content of that education, and if so, what it is.

    There are complex constitutional and legal implications for giving LAs responsibilities in HE, without defining precisely what they are, and complex issues around whether there should be a minimum content to educational provision, what it should be, and who should determine it.

    This is not analogous to people trying to wriggle out of clearly defined fiscal responsibilities.

  2. A bit of confusion here, I fancy. Firstly, a child in a maintained school is almost certainly getting some sort of education. It may be an inferior one, nothing is more likely these days, but she is unlikely to be receiving no education at all. In a home setting though, this is perfectly possible. That is why when we are looking for children missing from education, we tick off those registered at school. We then turn our attention to those at home and see whether they are receiving an education. As I pointed out yesterday, this is a duty of local authorities. Not a right, not an optional extra, but something which they must do.
    In order to establish whether a child is receiving an education at home, it is necessary at the very least to ask a few questions. Since everybody lies to the local authority, the answers to these questions need to be backed up with some evidence.
    I could not agree more that many children are not receiving a sufficient education at school, but they are receiving an education, however unsatisfactory. This is enough to satisfy Section 436 of the Education Act 1996.

  3. No sunlit birdy world for me. :-)

    As you know, I was the head of the special needs dept of a large London comprehensive school before having children, and as the chair of the 'Care Committee' which liased with outside agencies, I came across many instances of imperfect parenting to various degrees, some tragic and criminal. You don't have a monopoly on experiencing the darker side of families, though you always write as though you do.

    When the imperfection of the parenting strayed over the line to dangerous, the parent was prosecuted. Just before that line was reached, the family recieved 'help' from Family Therapy/Child Guidance or whatever it was called back then, I can't remember, or Social Services.

    But for the vast majority of imperfect parents, the state wouldn't have dreamed of interfering. Children who really ought to have gone to bed at 9 or 10 were up until midnight. Children who bought breakfast (a choc bar and a can of coke) from the shop on the way to school and got their tea from the chippy on the way home, really should have been having their 5 a day, served by mum, preferably in an apron. But they weren't.

    That's life. The world is an imperfect place. I wouldn't dream of claiming that all HE'ers are model educators. But it's their right to be less than perfect. It's their right NOT to suggest a field trip to the RSPB sanctuary because Johnny sid the blue tit at the feeder was pretty today. Just as it's my neighbour's right to feed her boy junk food every night, even when he's had a paediatrician referral because he's so short. It's my other neighbour's right to let her 15 year old choose to go to bed at 1.oo or 2.00 am when he has school the next day.

    Do I like it? No! Do I wish that some home educators were better at what they do? Yes. Just as I wish more parents were more conscientious about their responsibilities generally.

    But this is the world we live in, Simon. We are still allowed to be imperfect in the way we raise our children.

    Thank God.

    If the state removes from parents the responsibility for educating their child THEN we'd have to be accountable to it for our decisions. And if the state removes from parents the right to feed our children, we'd have to fill in forms about nutritional objectives and have kitchen inspections and our children weighed regularly and have blood tetsts to detect nutrient intake etc. Why is no one suggesting this? Because, like it or not, and I don't think you do, parents still have the repsonsibility for raising their own children in this country.

    By the way, Simon, I want to thank you for starting this blog. I actually used to agree with some of the things you'd say in online newspaper comments etc, but now, after having read your arguments in detail here, I have changed my mind about some things and am now much more certain that everything in the Bill needs to be opposed.

    Mrs Anon

  4. That's the beauty of the dialectical process, Mrs. Anon. As ideas come into conflict, one sees with more clarity where one's own beliefs lie. It is only by setting theories and concepts in oppsition in this way that we might perhaps arrive at a synthesis from which new truths emerge. On the other hand, we might all simply become more entrenched in our own ideologies! I agree completely that it is entirely up to parents if they wish to feed their children junk or let them sit up to all hours. I disapprove, but it is really not my business. There are certain things though which are my business. If my neighbour's child lacks warmth, food or shelter; that is my business. If his child lacks an education, that too is my business.

  5. "I could not agree more that many children are not receiving a sufficient education at school, but they are receiving an education, however unsatisfactory. This is enough to satisfy Section 436 of the Education Act 1996."

    But not sufficient for sections 7 or 437 of the same Act.

    "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!"

    When school using parents have to prove where they live by having a home visit you may have a point, but currently the authorities believe that the evidence provided with the application is not a lie unless they have reason to doubt it, just as is the case with home education at the moment. The same is true, I think, for all of the examples you gave. The tax man believes the written evidence (invoices) unless he has some reason to believe they may be faked. He doesn't routinely visit all business and ask to see the printer mentioned in the invoice as evidence that it was bought.

  6. "There are certain things though which are my business. If my neighbour's child lacks warmth, food or shelter; that is my business. If his child lacks an education, that too is my business."

    Extremely bad parenting is the business of the state, I doubt many would disagree with you there. But the state should be the parent of last resort (especially as it is such a poor parent) and, as in every other area of parenting (warmth, food, shelter, protection from abuse) the authorities should only become involved when there is evidence of need and not on a routine, monitoring basis. If it's acceptable to take this approach with much more important things such as abuse, health or nutrition, why should education be singled out for a different approach?

  7. Fair enouugh Simon. That's where your line is drawn. Nutition seems to me to particularly vital to get right because so many diseases in later life are related to nutrition. If I was going to draw a line anywheer it would be as follows:

    Protection from violence
    safety from the elements
    loving family
    adequate nutrition
    TV viewing etc

    The issues above the line should be the state's responsibility. Those below the line, I might have opinions about, but frankly they are none of my business. LOL!

    BTW, have you arrived at any 'new truths' as a result of the blog?

    Mrs Anon

  8. But to what extent is it your business, where is the dividing line which demarcates poor care from neglect and who does what about it?

    I wouldn't dispute, for example, that many people in the UK are under-nourished and that nutritional issues cause immense problems. But it would help if the NHS were encouraged to approach health problems from a dietary perspective, rather than by schools giving 5 year-olds the impression that a bag of crisps or a chocolate bar are morally suspect.

    Similarly with home education; the kind of education a child gets is without a doubt your business; but that issue might be better addressed by finding out why so many parents are voting with their feet by taking their children out of school, rather than policing them - in case they might be doing a worse job than the school from which they removed their children - using the very people who failed the children in the first place.

  9. To recap on your position, Simon (please correct me if I've misunderstood):
    People can't be trusted. Therefore the authorities should check up on them to ensure that they are not lying. Education is important, therefore the authorities should take steps to ensure that home educators are not lying about their educational provision. Nutrition is less important (or not the business of the authorities? I'm not clear about your reasoning here)so the authorities shouldn't take similar steps to ensure that people are not lying about their nutritional provision.

    How do you feel about personal property? Should the authorities inspect us all to ensure that we have no stolen property?
    How about murder? Should we all have our patios dug up once a year to make sure that we haven't buried anybody under them?
    Perhaps there should be a compulsory DNA register so that they can be absolutely sure who's lying and who isn't? Maybe everyone who refuses to provide their DNA should be automatically tried in a criminal court where evidence of their moral rectitude will not be admissable, and they will be found guilty and given a criminal record purely on the grounds that they refused to provide DNA?
    Terrorism? Regular inspections to find out if we're lying about the bomb factory in the attic?
    And what about sexual abuse? Shouldn't your daughters have been interviewed regularly to ensure that you were not raping them? Actually, perhaps they should have had annual vaginal examinations, because they can't be trusted to know if they are being raped?

  10. "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!"

    I wasn't asked for any evidence when my child went to the school of their choice. And neither I nor anyone I know had their home inspected to ensure that they weren't lying about living there.
    I have several friends who live on their own and claim the council tax discount, and none of them have had home visits either.
    I was on income support for a while and I had to sign a declaration stating that I wasn't working, and that I was not living with a partner. No-one investigated whether this was true until I was maliciously reported by a neighbour. In other words, until there was reason to believe that I might be lying.

    Home educators are not asking for preferential treatment; we are asking for the same treatment as everyone else.

  11. I don't think most people lie as a matter of course. That's not my perception of the world. But surely if we build social systems that expect them to, we're only going to increase the tendency? As a parent, I've found that trust generates 'good behaviour' and as a business manager I noticed the same thing.