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.


  1. I chose to home educate to give them a better education, one taylored to them - autonomous education. We were not concerned about them being pushed too hard at school, more that they would be bored by constant revision for tests and subject matter that was irrelevant to them. I didn't want their natural love of learning to die a not so slow death at school. It does depend on how you define 'better' though. For us an education that results in 10 A* GCSEs is not necessarily better than one that results in 5 grade C GCSEs. For us the measure is their continuing desire, interest, ability and motivation to learn.

  2. Maybe more HEing parents these days don't want to risk their children wilting ,so let them develop at a more balanced pace under natural conditions, without desiring to prioritize growth in one area, not least for fear that it could be detrimental to growth in other areas.

    Plus of course there is the issue of shock when you take them out from under glass.

    I lost a whole bunch of early, forced tomatoes thanks to shock.

    Tomatoes I can cope with flopping on me.

    Son of Thor...not so much.

    Not that he would let me hot house him anyway, he'd have a trowel in his hand and be staging a break out by day three.

    He is a lovely boy of normal intelligence. I think he is great just as he is and don't want to try and turn him into a mini-genius instead.

    My mum couldn't accept that I wasn't spectacular in some form. She overegged outrageous compliments in the hope that I would somehow take the hint and transmogrify into something I wasn't, so she could bask in the reflected glory and take the credit.

    Every article she could hoover up about turning your kid into the next Einstein or prima ballerina she then blew all over me from about the age of six months until I was 16 and left home.

    That esteem thing you mentioned, well thanks to that rejection of my ordinariness I felt like she didn't really know me or I had inadvertently given her the wrong impression of my mediocre talents and if she ever found out I was just bog standard she would be utterly disappointed. So the esteem of the self variety, I had none.

    I'm not doing that to my lad, not in the field of education or any other.

    Other people with kids who have special needs because they are particularly gifted might make a good fist of hot housing if they keep an eye out for pitfalls and make the child the priority rather than their love of a particular educational philosophy.

    I think the rest of us should think long and hard before trying to turn our kids into theirs with a "magic method".

  3. Are you saying that there are fewer fathers wanting to re-make their children in their own image these days? Phew! Perhaps they read about the past cases you detailed and decided it was too risky.

    Or are you asking why more people don't HE on educational grounds? I would have thought that was to do with most people not wanting to give up 15-25 years (depending on the number of children you have) of living on one income. It's the reason most people tell me they can't HE, even though their child is in desperate straights at school.

    Mrs Anon

  4. The point that ten GCSEs does not signify an education which is twice as adequate as that demonstrated by five GCSEs is a good one. Often, these qualifications, like the SATS, are seen as desirable for the school's prestige, rather than the benefit of the child concerned. I also like your point Sarah, about valuing children for who they are, rather than what they can do. I'm afraid many parents become bound up in this whole idea of desperately wanting their kids to achieve because it says something about what marvellous parents they must have!

    You are right Mrs. Anon, these cases almost invariably involve fathers rather than mothers. Although mothers are to fond in their ranks; just look at John Wesley's mother. It is of course perfectly possible to live on two part-time incomes. It just means cutting out a few things! Perhaps one day the Government will provide the AWPU direct to the parents! That would improve matters.

  5. "Perhaps one day the Government will provide the AWPU direct to the parents! "

    This would be interesting, and has been mooted by many over the decades. My prediction is that significant numbers of children would leach from the state system - to be educated by their parents, by private tutors, in independent schools, in alternative schools run by parents or not to be educated at all, but the parents would welcome the cash. Local authorities' funding would plummet, lots of schools would become non-viable financially, and the state system would be in crisis. This is why no government has done this. Yet.

  6. The network of maintained schools in this country operate what is, in effect, a total monopoly. Unless you have ten or twenty thousand pounds a year laying around the house, it is the local state school or nothing for your child. It would certainly revitalise the system is parents had a genuine choise in education. I can't somehow see the teaching unions wearing this though!

  7. "I also like your point Sarah, about valuing children for who they are"

    I think that also relates to what you said about esteem creeping into the curriculum. I'm all for recognizing that esteem is an issue that needs to be addressed, but during my superficial explorations to see how it is approached it smacks a bit of the American model where everybody gets a gold medal, everybody is "special and talented"...and that is too close to my mother's process for my liking.

    There is nothing wrong with recognizing that a minority people, usually thanks to genetic potluck, have a particular talent. We can celebrate their extraordinary achievements and appreciate the things they can do without forcing children to take part in a charade, that they do see through, to find the same extraordinariness in each and every one of us.

    It's ok to be average, it's ok to be a spectacular-talent free zone, value yourself for what you actually are without feeling the need to pump yourself up into something you aren't and spending your life either terrified that people will find out that you aren't some kind of champion or trying to live up to an unobtainable standard.

    I think approaching the question of esteem in the wrong way is worse than not doing anything about it at all.

    I noticed that my suspicion that HHs were mostly men has been echoed by somebody else. I wonder if they were of the variety that thought a bunch of fairies came out at night and did all the housework and shopping. Not sure how one would approach HHing AND working AND taking care of the house/kids AND having some time to dedicate to a life of your own.

    This obsession with who can get the greatest number of GCSEs is daft. My parents went hell for leather in that respect, I was entered for 13 and they were disappointed it wasn't more. I took a kind of perverse pleasure in announcing at every opportunity possible that I only passed 4 and two of those were in RE and domestic science. Just to watch them squirm with humiliation after all their pre 'O' level boasting in the style of "keeping up with the Joneses". (bear in mind I was only 16, which does rather explain the immature reaction)

    Pressuring kids to perform can really blow up in your face. And the kid's. I've had to work ten times harder and make far more of a splash in practical evaluations to make the headway in my career with just four crappy O levels to my name to make the same progress that a graduate could achieve at a saunter, with the minimum of effort and a total lack of professional qualifications or professional development.

    I think I did have a point at the start, but it has turned into a rant instead.


    But I do feel better for getting that lot off my chest LOL.

  8. My child's friends who have just started secondary school are undeniably under pressure. From the moment they arrive everything is a rush; there's no time to eat their lunch without rushing, no time to go to the loo or pick up a book from their locker without being late and getting a detention, no time to do more that skim the surface of any subject that interests them before they are rushed off to the next one, no time, really, to socialise with their friends. And so much of it is pointless. And nothing to do with education. My child is more relaxed _and_ better educated than her schooled friends.
    I agree with everything Sarah says about hothousing, having had a very similar experience myself. I was especially interested in the damaging effect of over-positive labelling; my parents assumed I was brilliant, so no achievement was praised because it was only what they expected, and everything short of perfect was reproached, regretfully, as a disappointment.

    So in answer to your question, Simon, I HE to give my kids a better education (by which I mean that they are free from pushy parent expectations and free to follow their interests and passions) _and_ to spare them the irrelevant and pointless stress of school.