One of the things that those not involved in home education sometimes fail to realise is the extent to which so many of the apparently spontaneous protests against any criticism of the practice are carefully planned. Baroness Deech in her speech on March 8th made reference to "lobbying", a suggestion which was indignantly dismissed by those on the HE lists. Lobbying? Organised campaigns? What ridiculous notions! Why, the woman must be paranoid. The truth is that Baroness Deech doesn't know the half of it. In the same speech she mentioned in passing something which Janet Ford had said about her daughter's social life. As a result of this, no fewer than nine women spent two days planning a response. Various texts were composed and redrafted until the final version was posted on Baroness Deech's Blog by somebody whose name was relatively unknown. This was incidentally quite a shrewd move. Had it been signed by firebird 2110 say, or Mehetable or Tania Berlow, the chances are that anybody reading it would have just dismissed it as the product of one of the usual suspects! I am pretty much up to speed with personalities, but I must confess that the name Norma Wilshaw is a new one to me. It puts one very much in mind of habitual criminals using somebody without a record to carry out some task.
Anybody who writes an article on home education, or mentions it on their Blog or makes a speech about it can expect to be deluged with abusive comments if what they have said deviates much from what a fairly small group of mainly autonomous educators regard as acceptable. There are not all that many of these people, but they make sure that they overwhelm the comments sections on Blogs and newspapers, thus giving the impression that the people's voice is firmly in favour of unregulated home education. Often, these comments are co-ordinated via HE lists such as HE-UK and BRAG. People will post suggestions for a response; others will help shape the tone of the comments, which aspects should be emphasised and so on. The end result looks very natural when the comments go up, but it is actually driven by no more than a dozen or so individuals. Just glancing at the comments though, gives a very authentic impression of an outpouring of spontaneous, popular anger. If a newspaper, national or local, has an article about home education, this same small group will post comments denouncing the author if he is insufficiently enthusiastic about home education. Anybody who says anything on these same comments pages even vaguely in favour of new regulations for home education is quickly shouted down.
That this is a fairly small band of activists is pretty plain from a number of clues. For one thing, it is always the same names which crop up. For some of these people, patrolling the Internet in this way looking for a scrap must be practically a full-time job. Lord knows when they find the time to educate their children! I have mentioned before firebird 2110, whose aggressive comments may be found in local newspapers as far apart as Portsmouth and Lancashire. I will not name personal names, but I think that we all know who I am talking about here! Often, it is the same nine people who made 70% of the Freedom of Information Act requests to the Department of Children, Schools and Families last year.
Now speaking for myself, I don't particularly mind this sort of thing. It's true that I had my own share of harsh comments for my pieces in the TES and Independent last year, but hey, that's OK. The danger that I can see is that those who are not aware of what is going on might be tricked into thinking that these extreme views are typical of home educators and not the mutterings of a tiny band of, perhaps fanatics is the wrong word, shall we say dedicated enthusiasts for their own lifestyle? This worries me, because it could so easily end up with the autonomous tail wagging the home education dog. I rather suspect that one or two Peers and MPs have been sucked into the debate on regulation because they have been persuaded that these militant types are typical of home educating parents and represent the majority. Perhaps if they were to start scrutinising the comments on a few blogs and online editions of newspapers and making a note of the names they see all the time, it would help disabuse them of this notion.