Friday, 30 April 2010


I have remarked before of the delight evidently felt by some home educating parents every time a tragedy occurs in a school or nursery. Whether it is toddlers being sexually abused or a boy choking to death in the course of an asthma attack, there are invariably smug remarks on some of the lists about the perils of the state education system. The latest example of this is to be found on the HE-UK list, where a number of those posting are exhibiting signs of gloomy satisfaction that they have eschewed such a dangerous institution for their own children. This is of course apropos of the teacher who beat the kid round the head with a piece of metal.

Of course, some children will come to harm in schools. They will also be injured at Girl Guides' meetings, in the swimming pool, on holiday and even when they are at home in bed. That's how the world is; it can be a hazardous place to live in. The impression though that one gets is that some of these people regard school as a uniquely horrible place, where education is grotesque and distorted and children are constantly falling prey to sexual maniacs and mad teachers wielding metal dumb-bells.

I have never seen school in this light personally. I don't think it the most efficient way of educating a child; that is without doubt through one-to-one tuition. However, most of the schools with which I have had dealings seem to have made the best effort that they could. True, some of them are lousy, but that is as much due to the low quality of the pupils as it is the fault of the school and its teachers. Truth to tell, I have a certain amount of sympathy for the fellow who battered that fourteen year old kid around the head. Teenagers today are extremely awful and with the sanction of flogging removed, there is little that can be done to control them.

As I say, I am not opposed to schools by any means. I think that they need a good shaking up and that there is much wrong with them, but if we accept the need for the mass instruction of millions of children each year, they are probably the best way of going about the process. There is certainly a need though for some alternative provision for those children and young people who are determined not to learn at school. My own preference would be to set them picking oakum in a large silent room, or failing that the treadmill. Realistically, I accept that this is unlikely, so perhaps special, vocational centres would be a more practical proposition. One thing is for sure; there are quite a few pupils in secondary schools who are unlikely to learn and whose presence prevents others from learning. Clouting them round the head with metal weights may not be the answer, but something does need to be done about this.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

The scourge of the anonymous message

I have had occasion before to remark that I am singularly unimpressed by anonymous messages. I am not apparently the only one. Over on the HE-UK list, somebody is puzzled that her parliamentary candidate won't enter into correspondence until he is sure of whom he is talking to. What I find intriguing about this is the hurt tone of the woman, as though anonymity were somehow a human right!

Until the advent of the Internet, anonymous letters would by most people be consigned straight to the wastepaper basket. Even newspapers would not deal with somebody who was not prepared to put his name at the bottom of the letter. How times change. It is incredibly common now for people expressing their views on the Internet to conceal their identity. Often, this is because the person is a spiteful and malevolent individual who would not dare to say these things unless it were possible to keep his identity secret. As I say, until quite recently, such people were viewed with contempt and their communications simply ignored. These days those, it has become almost respectable to send poison pen messages in this way.

I am bound to say that if I were standing for parliament, I too would be reluctant to answer any questions put to me by somebody who lacked the courtesy even to give her name. The whole business is really a little puzzling. I have strong views about many subjects which I am quite happy to reveal to others. It goes without saying that I put my name to these views and allow people a chance to rebut them if they are able. Why on earth would I send these views to people anonymously? What sort of sneaky little reptile would this make me, if I were to adopt this as a regular practice?

Of course, home educators are not alone in this desire to keep their names secret. Many blogs are anonymous and so too are the majority of comments made. Perhaps it is because many people seem to think that the normal rules of human behaviour do not apply in cyberspace. It is as though they feel that they can be anybody they wish on the Internet and that giving their names would somehow break the spell. I am sure that many of those who post anonymous messages online would not dream of sending abusive, anonymous letters through the post!

Meanwhile, the poor woman who wishes to discuss home education with her candidate has reached an impasse. I do find this a little odd. Presumably she does not intend to abuse or insult the man. After all, she could do that quite easily by email without revealing anything. She has sent him a message addressed by name and all he wants is for her to sign the thing. Interesting to speculate upon her motives for refusing to do so.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Long term consequences of the Badman review

I was wondering the other day what, if any, the long term consequences of the Graham Badman review of home education are likely to be. It certainly brought home education into the spotlight and drew the attention of the newspapers and public to the fact that it is happening and is perfectly legal. I am curious to know whether or not this has resulted in a surge of people deregistering their children from school.

Judging purely from the lists such as HE-UK, EO and so on, I seem to notice a hardening of positions both on the part of parents and also the local authorities. I don't know if this is significant or indeed anything to do with the Graham Badman review at all. The impression I get is that some local authorities are behaving as though the Children, Schools and Families Bill had been passed and are talking as though they have new powers. On the other side of the fence, a number of parents, with the enthusiastic backing of others on the lists, are refusing to provide anything beyond the barest information about their educational philosophy. The feeling I get is that both local authorities and home educating parents are digging in. Of course this is not the case in every local authority area; Somerset and Hampshire being notable exceptions. I would like to know though if this is a trend that anybody else has noticed.

I have a suspicion that matters are not about to rest with the defeat of the CSF Bill and that whoever comes to power next month will eventually get round to looking at home education again. I can't somehow see anybody wishing to go through the whole business of trying to get a bill through Parliament again. I should think that once was quite enough for all sides! I have an idea that it might be possible to push through some of the provisions as amendments to existing acts like the 1996 Education Act or The Education (School Attendance Targets)(England) Regulations 2005. It is not uncommon for such things to be added, even years after the acts were passed. I doubt that the whole rigmarole of the CSF Bill would be put through in that way, but I rather think that the requirement to register could.

My own feeling is that one way or another, the Graham Badman Review has changed things. Simply by drawing everybody's attention to the fact that many children have been taken out of school and are not being prosecuted for aiding their children's truancy must have come as a surprise to many ordinary parents. It will be interesting to see what happens now under the next administration. One thing is for sure, I doubt that things will just go back to how they were before January 2009.

Monday, 26 April 2010

A broad and diverse education of a high quality

What sort of idiots would not want their children to enjoy a broad and diverse education of a high quality? It is, after all, what most ordinary parents seek for their children. What could possibly be wrong with it? Step forward an assortment of such idiots who hang out on the HE-UK list. They are currently foaming at the mouth like a bunch of retired colonels from Tunbridge Wells writing to the Daily Mail. Their anger is directed against, of all unlikely targets, the Green Party!

The Green Party have said in their manifesto that they feel that home educated children are entitled to a high quality education. Few would argue with that statement. They also believe that such an education should be 'broad and diverse'. Again, most sane and well balanced individuals would see this as a good thing. This education should also be 'supported by local authorities'. These modest aspirations have been more than enough to drive a number of home educating parents into a frenzy. Mike Fortune-Wood, whose reputation for calm, clear thought has never been extensive, has spotted their true intentions. He says that this 'broad and diverse education' is none other than the 'broad and balanced education' which the DCSF and local authorities have been trying to push home educators into adopting for years.

The concern is apparently that by pushing this notion of a 'broad and balanced' or 'broad and diverse' education, some people are intending to encourage home educating families to provide an education for their children which includes history, music, science, mathematics and so on. Once again, to most ordinary families this would seem quite unexceptionable and eminently reasonable. For most parents, a knowledge of science and mathematics is seen as a good and desirable thing per se. The more extreme types of autonomous home educator are evidently opposed to the idea not on pragmatic grounds; that it would be bad for their children. Rather, their opposition is rooted in ideology. The idea of having various subjects which it is intended that the child will study is anathema to such people because it does not accord with their fixed belief that children should be free to choose for themselves what they learn about and when they learn it. Deciding beforehand that history or science will be studied would remove that choice from the child.

It is an extraordinary notion, that any parent should follow an ideology specifically designed to cause one to curtail a child's education in this way. Perhaps I might offer the following simile. It is as though traditional education consists of a table set out with a variety of dishes which the child is encouraged to sample. Some will be more to her taste than others. Still, it is important that she tries as many as possible, because otherwise she will not find out which she likes. By contrast, the autonomous approach is predicated more upon education as a locked cupboard. The child may have any of the foods in the cupboard, but she must first guess what they are and then ask for them. She will certainly not be encouraged to try an unfamiliar food, this is opposed on ideological grounds. Under such conditions, it is all but inevitable that the child will grow up with a limited and restricted palate. She might in later life sample some of the foods which were not offered to her in childhood, but the chances are that she will remain a cranky and picky eater. The end result of such a strategy, whether in matters culinary or pedagogic, will be to restrict choice and limit future attainment.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

The effects of home education

My daughter and I were musing recently upon how differently she might have turned out had she gone to school rather than been taught at home. It is true that she is fairly sociable and reasonably well balanced, but it is interesting to wonder if the very experience of spending her formative years largely in the company of adults has affected her adversely in any way. She suggested that the best way of testing this would be if we could get hold of some pairs of identical twins and try sending one to school and keeping the other at home. I was compelled to point out to her that experiments like this with twins have rather a bad image since Dr Mengeles activities during the war!

One thing which does stand out with her, and I have noticed this with other home educated teenagers, is that she shows little respect and no deference at all to adults simply because they are adults. This can make her appear arrogant or rude sometimes. The only problem here is that I am myself a very rude and arrogant person, so this might just be a bad habit which she has picked up from me, rather than anything particularly to do with being home educated. I think though that there might be a bit more to it than that. One of things she noticed when she started college was that many of the other sixteen year olds called the lecturers 'Sir' or 'Miss' as a matter of routine. This really is a bit strange. When did you last here a woman being addressed as 'Miss'? Come to that, how many people address superiors as 'Sir'?

There is no doubt that schools teach this weird attitude that adults are somehow deserving of respect simply by virtue of being adults and not children. This has the effect of creating a peculiar relationship between the ages which more or less precludes friendship and equality. I don't personally find this a brilliant thing and I'm not sorry that my daughter never acquired this mindset. Apart from anything else, it can be quite dangerous. If children grow up thinking that adults are usually right and their wishes must be heeded, then one is setting the stage for all sorts of dodgy situations! An awful lot of the sexual abuse of children stems from precisely this sort of power imbalance, where children's inbred desire to please and obey adults is exploited for the gratification of a pervert.

In a more general sense, I don't find this whole respect for adults thing very good because it has the effect of stopping children from thinking for themselves. If adults are viewed as being wise and knowledgeable, then there is no need for children to think things out for themselves. The adult already knows best, knows all the answers. This is the sort of thinking which is useful in schools of course. If you are teaching thirty children, you really don't want them all arguing you and challenging what you say. It is enough if they simply learn what you say and believe you to be the fount of all wisdom.

For my own part, I was always pleased when my child refused to take my word for something. It showed that she had a mind of her own. If this has developed over the years into a tendency to be sceptical of what she is told and a determination to find out for herself; well, there are worse things.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Everybody lies

One of the recommendations in Graham Badman's report which irritated home educating parents was that when their children were deregistered from school to be home educated, then the school would be expected to send the local authority a record of their child's achievement and also their expected future achievement. It was felt that the schools might give an unrealistic assessment of the child and thus put the parents into the position of fulfilling unrealistic goals for their children's development.

This was a quite understandable fear. As those foolish enough to send their children to school will know, schools habitually lie their heads off about the ability of pupils. A child who can barely string two words together in French will be described as, 'One of our most able linguists'. One will be told that 'Jimmy has a good understanding of all the major world faiths' or that 'Mary has the makings of a first rate historian'. Of course parents usually know that these statements are completely untrue and make allowance for this. The fact that everybody knows that they are complete falsehoods is simply a fact of life for parents whose children attend school. The fear was that if such reports had been sent to the local authority, then their officers would actually have expected the children to behave like able linguists or first rate historians. An alarming thought indeed!

Still, everybody lies. Parents too lie their heads off about the children in their care. They claim that their own children are more artistic, more sensitive, articulate, compassionate, musical or what have you than the kids next door. This, after all, is human nature. You would hardly expect to take a parent's word for her child's ability and talents. I have been prompted to reflect upon this by a spate of parents posting on some of the Internet lists, parents who are determined to provide their local authorities with any information about their child's progress or academic work. Their attitude seems to be, 'I have told the local authority that Jimmy is receiving a suitable education and that should be good enough for them'. As I remarked above, everybody lies. Why on earth should the local authority take the parents word for this?

I remember when we came to the attention of the local authority and they began asking questions about my daughter's work. Now of course, I could have told them to mind their own business and take my word for it that she was being educated, but why would I do that? Life is very short and I wouldn't really want to be engaged in a battle with my local authority. It was far easier for all concerned simply to let them know what was going on and invite them to come and see for themselves. After all, their concerns were pretty much the same as mine; they wanted to be sure that an eight year old girl was being educated. Leaving aside the precise legal duties involved, it seemed a reasonable enough wish on the part of local authority officers from the education department. I accordingly sent them copies of my daughter's work and allowed them to visit for an hour or so once a year. I could see no reason not to do so.

Everybody lies. We lie about our income and our own achievements. We lie about what our children are capable of. We lie about our relationships and our beliefs. Why should we suddenly feel that we should tell the truth when the local authority is asking what our children are up to? the answer is that we probably wouldn't. If at the age of twelve our son were still unable to read and write properly, we would probably lie about it and tell the local authority that he had just finished The Forsythe Saga. If he spent all day on the computer, we would lie about that too and invent a flourishing social life and sporting activities for him. This is human nature; of course the local authority wants to see for themselves!

As I get older, I wish for an easier and less troublesome life. There are many occasions when I could stand on my rights and behave like a barrack-room lawyer, but then my life will become one long struggle. I really can't see why parents would want to deny the local authority access to their children and give them some idea of what they were up to. The only thing which would make this worthwhile would be if there was a real reason for not wanting the local authority to see one's home or speak to one's children. otherwise, the easiest and most straightforward course for all concerned would be to welcome them in once a year.( And yes, I am perfectly well aware that the case is quite different for children with elective mutism, Asperger's and so on. I am talking of children without special educational needs.)

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Conservative ideas about schools

I have been reading with great interest the manifesto of the Conservative Party. I realise that the preceding sentence must sound grotesque in the extreme; after all, what sort of freak would read any manifesto with great interest, let alone one from the Tories? Never the less, there were one or two parts that might be of help to home educators.

The Conservatives are promising to make it easier for charities, religions and even groups of parents to set up their own schools. Now I have written before about the 'Free Schools' of the early nineteen seventies. This was essentially home education under a different name. Parents whose children had been withdrawn from school or expelled, would band together and register themselves as schools. Sometimes they would acquire premises, such as an old, semi-derelict building. On other occasions, the 'school' would be set up in a few spare rooms in somebody's house.

These 'schools' were all very free and easy and mostly based upon Summerhill. Although a few were set up by teachers, there was in general little attempt to teach much. the children decided for themselves what, if anything, they studied. With the huge amount of red tape which currently chokes so many new enterprises, I would not have thought this sort of thing practical these days. However, if it is a manifesto pledge, then there is at least some chance of holding the Tories to it if they get in on May 6th.

Of course, the whole thing might be so bound up with rules and regulations, a requirement to be inspected by Ofsted for example or follow the National Curriculum, that it would not suit home educators. On the other hand, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that some of the groups of home educating parents who are already running educational activities might be able to convert them into a registered school with a little ingenuity. I suppose that i am thinking here of the long term future, because although the Children, Schools and Families Bill has gone, the intention to put home education on a more businesslike footing has not gone away. I wonder whether or not home educators might not be well advised to lay plans for making themselves into some sort of scheme which could, at a pinch, lokk enough like a school to satisfy any critics.

Monday, 12 April 2010

What difference will the defeat of Schedule 1 make to local authorities?

Many local authorities in this country were gearing up to implement the provisions of the Children, Schools and Families Bill as soon as they became law. As we are all now aware, Schedule 1 of the bill, which contained all the stuff about compulsory registration and so on, will not now become law. Never the less, the momentum which has been building up with many local authorities seems to be unstoppable. Just as a giant oil tanker cannot stop in a few yards, but continues on its course for miles even after the engines have been thrown into reverse, so too with the local authorities. Indeed, many of them do not even appear to have been issued with the instruction to stop engines!

Several parents on the Internet lists have reported receiving communications from their local authority which require them to provide a statement of educational intent, sign agreements and generally behave as though the Children, Schools and Families Bill was in fact passed in its entirety. There are two possible explanations for this. The first is that it as I say, simply the usual bureaucratic inertia which makes it hard to change any policy. The local authorities have made their plans and are now unable to alter them at a moment's notice. There is though another possibility. This is that legal advice has been taken and it is intended to treat those who deregister their children from school as though they were not providing a suitable education unless they give good evidence to the contrary. This would be an interesting point. Of course cases such as Joy Baker's went into this as long ago as the nineteen fifties.

In the same year that Education Otherwise was founded, another court case had its beginnings; a case which was to be just as significant in its own way as that of Joy Baker's, twenty years earlier. Mr Phillips and Ms Reah were the parents of a boy with the unusual name of Oak. They lived in Leeds and chose to educate their son at home. In the course of time, the local education authority in Leeds became aware that Oak Reah was not attending school and in the Summer of 1977 they wrote to his parents asking them about the educational provision being made for their son. His parents decided that it was nobody's business but their own and refused to give any information whatsoever about Oak's education. After a time, the LEA grew impatient and issued a School Attendance Order. Eventually, the family very grudgingly provided an account of what they were doing.

As a result of such cases as these, many parents today believe that all that their local authority is required by law to ask for is an educational philosophy. Accordingly, many parents, particularly those who favour autonomous education, limit themselves to a vague document which expresses their hopes, rather than sets out their plans. A lot of local authorities are unhappy about this and judging by some of the letters being sent, it seems that some will no longer be prepared to accept such a feeble explanation.

This could prove pretty exciting for some of the families who will be the first to challenge this new approach, if that is what it is. Lord Donaldson's ruling in the case of Oak Reah leaves a good deal of leeway for both local authorities and parents to argue about what is acceptable in this respect. He certainly said that if parents refused to give any information about their children's eduction, then the local authority could be justified in assuming that no education was taking place. On the other hand, sending them an educational philosophy does, at least according to some parents, provide the necessary evidence of an education. I wonder if we are heading for another of those landmark rulings in home education? We shall have to see whether or not this is just a little over enthusiasm on the part of authorities who were getting over-excited about the new powers they were expecting or if there is a little more to it.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

An interesting post on the Education Otherwise list

There has been a lot of quite natural exuberance on the Internet lists, following the downfall of Schedule 1 of the Children, Schools and Families Bill. This is of course only to be expected. In the midst of it all, a woman who has just deregistered her thirteen year old daughter from school posted a message on Wednesday asking for help and advice on teaching her daughter mathematics. Fiona Nicholson gave information about a couple of websites, but apart from that nobody at all has responded to this parent. I find this quite revealing. Anybody who has a complaint about a local authority officer overstepping the mark, that is to say checking that a child is actually being educated, can be sure of a flurry of sympathetic answers on the lists. These will include the relevant sections of the law to quote and stuff like that. When somebody posts though, asking about teaching her child, the response is to say the least of it, a little muted. Of course, the dull old business of teaching algebra to a teenager caonnot really compare with the excitement of being involved with scuppering a government bill, but even so, one might have thought that at least a few on the list would have answered this woman with some helpful advice.

I have noticed before that few of the threads on either the EO or HE-UK lists actually concern education. The law relating to education, yes. The iniquitous conduct of local authority officers charged with monitoring education, yes. Campaigns about proposed new legislation, certainly. Hints and tips on education, very seldom. Information about teaching a child, never. This is pretty curious really. You might expect that support groups for parents who had undertaken the exceptionally demanding task of being solely responsible for their own children's education would be at least vaguely concerned with education, but it is not generally so. Long on the supposed rights of parents, short on the very real duties towards the child, would about sum up the spirit of these sites.

Apart from complaints about the behaviour of local authorities, what other sort of thing do parents post about? Anything unpleasant which happens to a child in nursery or school is always popular. If a child is sexually assaulted in a nursery or drops dead at school, there will always be a few self satisfied parents making comments along the lines of, 'Oh dear, just look what happens to children at school. We are so wise not to send our own kids to such dreadful places.' I'm sure that the parents posting these comments are not really heartless, but they come across in these posts as being pretty smug about the fact that their own children are not exposed to these hazards. And of course, for the last year or so, many posts have been about the campaign to oppose Graham Badman's recommendations and then the CSF Bill. This is understandable, at least from the perspective of some parents.

I suppose that it might just be me who has a such a skewed perspective , but I have to say that I am constantly surprised that these lists are not more about education. The mothers who do go on there anxious to know what to do next are invariably told to stop worrying and leave their children to their own devices. I cannot think that this is always the best approach! After all, Education Otherwise is recognised even by the government and local authorities as being the organisation in this country for home educators. I don't think it unreasonable to expect their support networks to be a little more concerned with education and a little less with political agitation.

I shall be away for the next few days and so I hope that readers will not think that I am ignoring an comments. We are making a family visit to relatives in Grimsby, of all horrible places.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The Children, Schools and Families Bill

Well, those who wish to denounce me as a dolt lacking in political acumen now have the perfect opportunity! I'm not sure what the Conservatives true motives were, but they have certainly managed to humiliate Ed Balls in the first few days of the election campaign, so perhaps that is sufficient motive in itself.

I suppose the real question which home educating parents will be considering now is whether having seen off this attempt to usurp their legitimate rights, as they see it, they will be able to relax for the next few years, safe in the knowledge that this particular issue has been dealt with and buried. Or will it be like a scene from one of those horror films like Halloween? You know the sort of thing, where the murderous monster is apparently dead, but as the soon as the heroine walks past, it returns to life and grabs her ankle. I suppose that for now, the euphoria will be enough for those who have fought so hard against these measures. It is hard under such circumstances not to feel that the whole business is now buried for good and the Graham Badman Report consigned to the dustbin of history!

I imagine that what most parents now will be hoping for is a return to the ante bellum status quo. In other words, that the situation which existed before January 2009 will simply be restored and that life for home educating families will be restored to 'normal'. The only problems here is that ideas are very hard to dispose of when once they have been aired so publicly. Whether you regard the Badman report as I did as a breath of fresh air, or as many others did as a foetid stench, it is likely to linger for some while. The interesting point will be to see what, if anything, the Conservatives do about home education, should they get in on May 6th. We already know that Labour's first action will be to reintroduce the Children, Schools and Families Bill in its full, unemasculated glory. Will the Tories really be able to resist the temptation of meddling themselves in the matter? We shall see.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The rise in school leaving age

I was wondering recently what effect the change in the age of compulsory education will have upon home educating families. From 2015 young people will have to stay in education until the age of eighteen, rather than sixteen. Of course many parents are still claiming Child Benefit from the age of sixteen to eighteen on the grounds that they are still educating their child and that this education does not stop once he reaches sixteen. One wonders whether this will get a little harder in 2015, with proper evidence needed to back up the claim. Of course this increased school leaving age is not due to come into force for a few years yet. It will happen in stages, with the age rising to seventeen in 2013 and then eighteen in 2015. Still, we all know how time flies and this will be upon us before we notice it coming.

The major difference that I can foresee is that we may start to acquire some solid information about the academic attainment of home educated children in this country. At the moment, the results of any GCSEs or IGCSEs taken in the Summer of the academic year that a child turns sixteen, don't become available until August. Since official involvement with home educated children ends on the last Friday in June, the local authority seldom gets to hear these results. Sometimes a home educating parent might take the trouble to contact the EHE Department of the local authority in September, just to let them know how things went, but I have a suspicion that most don't bother! I certainly didn't.

There seems to be a perception among many professionals in the field of education that home educated children take and pass fewer formal examinations than the average child at school. I have no idea at all whether this is true or not, although I would not be at all surprised to find that it was. Of course, as others have pointed out here before, GCSEs are not the be all and end all of education; far from it. Still, it would be interesting to see how home educated children matched up against those at school in this this respect. Mind you, unless the funding to take these qualifications for free, like all other children, is forthcoming, we would have to adjust the statistics accordingly, to take into account the fact that many parents might wish their children to sit GCSEs but are simply unable to afford it. It currently costs around £120/£150 to sit each GCSE in an independent school. In order to take the ten or twelve which are common in schools, a parent might therefore have to shell out getting on for £2000! This is hardly fair, when they have been paying exactly the same taxes as everybody else.

Another difficulty with the school leaving age might be occur if regulations for the monitoring of home education became a little stricter. It is tricky enough as it is for some parents to maintain the, I won't say illusion, perhaps appearance would be a better word, of education as the child grows older. If it is hard to do this with an uncooperative sixteen year old, just imagine trying to get some great eighteen year old to go along with the game and say the necessary things to a local authority officer! For some parents, it hardly bears thinking about.

Rights and duties

I mentioned "rights" yesterday, but without even defining the word! This was a mistake, because it is only by examining what we mean by "rights" that we can see how the concept applies, or not, to home education.

A right is simply an entitlement to have or do something. A few people yesterday sought to muddy the waters somewhat by talking of negative and positive rights, natural rights and so on, but these are the very reddest of herrings. Whether the right is a broad and general one, such as guaranteeing life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or of a narrow and specific nature such as the right to a full time education, makes no difference at all to their essential nature. One or two people thought that I was pulling a fast one by saying that the Children Act 2004 gave children certain rights. They had looked through it and couldn't see any mention at all of "rights". Of course not; the act consists really of duties. This brings us neatly to the crux of the matter.

Rights are always associated with duties. If I have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then others must have a duty not to deprive me of my liberty or kill me. If a child has the right to an education, then somebody must have a duty to provide him with it. Duties can create rights. In the Education Act 1996, it nowhere says that children have a right to education; merely that parents have a duty to cause them to receive it. This is how most rights are created in law, by setting out duties. For every right, there are corresponding duties. Of course, this does not always work the other way. It is perfectly possible to have a duty without the duty conferring rights upon anybody.

The greatest error into which many of those discussing home education seem to have fallen is to assume that parents have some sort of "rights" in the case. They do not. I have read of parents talking about their "right" to educate their children at home. Even Graham Badman fell into this error, by claiming that it was somehow necessary to balance the rights of parents against the rights of children. This is the most pernicious nonsense imaginable. I as a parent never had any rights at all in connection with my children. I had instead duties. They had all the rights; I had none at all! Unfair, I know, but that's ethics for you.

The fact that the debate around home education is being sometimes framed in terms of parents' "rights" is a sign of the times. A hundred years ago, even fifty years ago, the language used would have been very different. Both parents and professionals would have been trying to thrash out the question using the idea of duties, rather than shouting about rights. Actually, I was racking my brains last night , trying to come up with a single right which parents have, or should have. I could not think of any. Is there any right which parents have, which readers can think of? A right which carries a corresponding duty in law which others must respect?

Having cleared the ground a little, we find that matters are now a good deal more easy to understand. Children have a right to an education. Parents have a duty to provide them with this education, either by sending them to school or in some other way. More specifically, they must provide a full time education suitable to their child's age and aptitude, having regard for any special educational needs. This does not give parents a "right" to educate their children at home, as I have seen some argue. It rather allows them a bit of leeway in discharging their legal duty. This duty itself can be altered or modified at any time. For instance, the definition of what constitutes a full time education could be precisely stated or a "suitable education" spelt out in detail. If these things were to be done, it would simply add to a parent's duties, not diminish her rights. To expect parents to submit an annual plan of their child's education would not remove any right either. It would instead become a new duty.

As soon as we realise that parents have no specific rights over their children or their children's education, the current debate on home education becomes very simple and easy to understand. As citizens, we enjoy certain rights. The right not to be cast into prison without trial, for instance. As parents, we enjoy no additional rights. Becoming a parent means that we are suddenly landed with a raft of duties and obligations. this is as it should be and of course nobody is compelled to have children and acquire those duties unless they particularly want to! Introducing this spurious notion of parental rights into discussion of home education has served only to upset and confuse people. A number of parents have now become convinced that any new legislation might diddle them out of their rights! Nothing of the sort. All it would do would be to add a few new duties for them to perform. Amidst all the duties which they already have, most will hardly notice a couple of new ones.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Duties towards our children

There can be no doubt at all that children in this country have certain rights. That being so, then others must inevitably have corresponding duties to see that children are able to exercise, or at the very least are not prevented from exercising, those rights. Where do these rights come from? My own view is that the Lord has given us these rights and duties and that they are set out clearly in the Bible. Others would argue that only a raving madman would claim to be basing his life upon the myth system of a Bronze Age Bedouin tribe! Perhaps we should adopt a more up-to-date and modern approach, believing that the rights which our children enjoy are those given to them by the law of the land.

What sort of rights do children in this country have? For one, they have a firm right to an education between the ages of five and sixteen. Who has the duty for ensuring that they receive this education? We do, as parents. This is all perfectly clear and straightforward. Do children have any other rights? Well, they have the right to the five outcomes of the Every Child matters document. This is underpinned by the 2004 Children Act. Who has the duty to see that our children have access to these five outcomes? There is no doubt at all about that. The local authority has the duty of seeing that children in their area are getting access to the outcomes of Every Child Matters. The only difference is that in one case the duty devolves upon us as parents and in the other upon the local authority. This is tricky. How did I know whether or not my own daughter was receiving her entitlement to a full time education, suitable to her age and aptitude? That's easy, I knew because I saw her every day and was able to judge her development. Could I have known this without seeing her? Probably not. What about the local authority? They too have a duty towards our children. Can they fulfil their duties towards our children without actually seeing them? Can they judge whether or not our children are healthy, safe, enjoying and achieving, making a positive contribution and achieving economic wellbeing? It is unlikely that they will be able to establish that children are doing all those things without meeting them, and yet they have a duty in law to see that children in their area actually have access to all those outcomes listed in the Every Child Matters document.

If we accept that our children have a right to an education and that this right comes not from God but from Parliament, then the rights associated with the 2004 Children Act are no less important than the ones conferred by the Education Act 1996, which entitles them to an education. Both lots of rights come from the same source, the only difference being that parents have the duty to ensure that one right is secured and local authorities have the duty to see that the children get the other set of rights.

In short, we as parents are not the only people who have duties towards our children. Nor are the five outcomes of Every Child Matters the only rights which our children have that others have a duty to secure for them. It seems pretty clear that however much we as home educators wish to claim that we alone are responsible for our children and their welfare, this is not the case; either ethically or legally. Others do have a legitimate interest in our children.

Of course, we could of course say that we are only answerable to the Lord for our rights and duties, but this raises another, even greater, problem. Imagine the situation faced by the Canaanite Education Department around 2000 BC. There's Abraham with his son Isaac. They wish to know if the child is receiving a suitable education, but Abraham refuses to discuss the matter. He says that God is giving him the instructions about his child directly; he does not accept any human advice on the matter. Next thing they know, Abraham is up on Mount Moriah with the child tied up and laying on a pile of wood . Abraham says that he is going to cut the child's throat and offer the boy up to the Lord as a sacrifice. It's OK though, it's nobody else's business; the Lord has told him what to do! This would be a pretty unsatisfactory situation even during the Bronze Age. In the Twenty First Century it would be intolerable.

It seems to me an inescapable fact that society has a right to watch over our children to see that they do not come to harm. This is because parents are not always the best judges of what is good for their children. I think that in the case cited above, the Canaanites would have been pretty negligent in allowing Abraham to go ahead with what he evidently saw as a desirable otcome for his young son. It also seems to me that whether we think that our duties towards our children come from God or from Parliament, we must accept that others have a hand in ensuring that our children have access to those rights we which have a duty to secure for them.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

On meaning well

I was very struck yesterday by a comment which somebody posted here:

'Because parents only want what is best for their child, there is never any reason to doubt their motives or doubt their judgment concerning their child's education or well-being.'

This is a fascinating thesis and I wonder how widespread this strange idea is generally among home educators? Let's look a little more closely at this and see what we can make of it.
I am very much inclined to agree with the first part of the statement, that parents only want what is best for their child. I don't know though to what extent , if any, this statement leads logically on to the idea that there can never be any reason to doubt parents judgement concerning their child's well-being. The idea is presumably that because parents want what is best for their children, they will as a matter of course provide it for them. This is a peculiar notion indeed. Using examples from parents whom I have both known and heard of, I want to explore this a little.

Perhaps I should begin with my own child. I certainly wanted what was best for her and to that end raised her as a vegetarian and didn't buy her sweets. This seemed quite sensible to me, but some other parents thought that it was both cruel and neglectful. Cruel, because children like sweets and I did not given them to my daughter and neglectful because many people believe that growing children require meat in order to become healthy and strong. I think that they were mistaken, but already my own idea of what was good for my child had caused others to view me askance. Now I want to think about friends of mine who were strict vegans. Their child really was a bit pale and unhealthy and I have a suspicion that the family diet had something to do with it. I confess I felt a little uneasy at times and believed that his parents were not really feeding him properly.

Now I want to mention a home educating family who we got to know through Education Otherwise. This family never ate any hot food; it was opposed to the mother's principles. The consequence was that her eight year old daughter had never had a hot meal. I honestly found this awful. The child was so shy that I never actually met her. She would always hide upstairs when visitors came and only call over the bannister to her mother.

Next up are some macrobiotic acquaintances, whose diet was very restricted and who periodically ate nothing but brown rice. Their child was kept to the same diet and it showed. She was always going down with coughs and colds and I am sure that she suffered from a vitamin deficiency. All the parents we have seen so far have certainly had their children's welfare at heart and only want what is best for them. In America there have been cases of macrobiotic parents whose children have become seriously ill because of their parents' crank diet. The parents, I am sure, loved their children and wanted what was best for them, but they were mistaken. I am afraid we do have reason to, 'doubt their judgment concerning their child's education or well-being' They were actually following a course of action which harmed their child.

Still on food, we come to a mother who thought that her children were eating too much junk food. She decided that it would be much healthier for her children to eat raw vegetables and a little porridge. She also worried that her children were eating too much and being greedy, so she would serve the food up in one bowl and all the children would have to take small portions from the same bowl. Because they were hungry, some of the kids took more than their fair share, while others got little and ended up losing weight. This mother too wanted what was best for her children, although perhaps she had a strange way of going about things. Her ideas were no different in principle from my vegetarianism or the friends who were macrobiotic fanatics. Her name was Angela Gordon and of course her daughter Khyra ultimately died as a result of the diet which her mother had imposed.

Sometimes, although parents are trying to do what they think is best for their children, their actions will actually be harmful. This is true of diet and it can be equally true of education. We cannot really judge simply by motives and intentions; it is very rare for a parent to set out to harm a child. In the case of somebody like Angela Gordon, we have to ask ourselves to what extent others should have respected her rights as a parent. When she specifically instructed the staff at her children's school that they were not to be allowed second helpings, should the staff have gone along with this? Would it have been right for the state to intervene? Should her 'rights' as a parent have been respected? Would it have been right for the state to make sure that my own daughter was allowed to eat meat? What if I had been giving her nothing but brown rice, would that have been sufficient for the state to take a hand?

The fact that a parent is genuinely trying to do her best for her child does not necessarily mean that her judgement is sound. Some parents hit their children, which I would never have done. Are they wrong? Should the state intervene? There are no clear cut and black and white answers to these questions. I thought that keeping my child out of school and in my company more than in the company of children her own age was a good idea. Others did not. The fact is that there are certainly cases when the state should interfere, but it is horribly difficult to say when this should be. Deciding this is a purely personal matter. However, my purely personal decision might very well be a wrong and ill judged one. This is why we need a little objective and impartial oversight from time to time of our actions as parents.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Singing from the same sheet

I am often amused to hear that I am practically the only home educator in the country who approves of new legislation. It is perfectly true that an appearance of wonderful unanimity has been achieved on various Internet lists and other places and this does have the overall effect of presenting home educating parents as united in the hatred of and opposition to the Children, Schools and Families Bill 2009. How is this illusion maintained?

Until I was chucked off the various lists last Summer, I used to take an active part in many of the debates on both the HE-UK and EO lists. I would regularly get emails off-list from people who told me that they actually agreed with what I was saying but did not like to come out on my side openly. One mother told me that she was frightened of 'putting her head above the parapet'! I found this pretty disturbing. The reason these women did not like to say the things that I was saying was simply because they knew that it would make them unpopular with some of the more aggressive and regular posters. I watched this happen a few times. Some poor person would join and then express an opinion about visits from the local authority or registration and would then be hounded into keeping quiet. A number of mothers were actually driven off the HE-UK list in this way. One woman with whom I was in contact was sent very unpleasant emails off-list. She had suggested that Graham Badman might have a point!

A mother posted recently on one of the lists saying that she had had a very pleasant and positive experience of a visit by her local authority. You might imagine that this was a good thing, but it did not take long before other people began trying to poison this woman against her local authority. She was told that accepting visits could be bad for other parents, that she was letting down the side, she should not trust the local authority officer, that if she declined a visit in the future, the local authority might think she was abusing her children! I don't think that this particular person will be posting again in a hurry about having a nice visit. This is one of the ways that the united front is enforced; by ensuring that mothers who don't toe the line are made to feel uncomfortable and as though they are in some way letting down other parents by having an enjoyable monitoring visit. Since isolated mothers often depend on these lists, they do not wish to become unpopular for expressing heterodox views. This sort of thing is of course a type of bullying.

Another way of manipulating the appearance of home education in this country is done more subtly. A yahoo group called Homeedoutcomes has recently been started. The person running it has been appealing for true accounts of successful home education outcomes. I applied to join the list weeks ago, but despite following up this with another email, it is pretty clear that I shall not be allowed to do so. The eventual collection of accounts will be limited to those who chose an unstructured education for their children. This is a deliberate strategy in order to present a distorted picture of home education in this country. Just to check, I got another home educating parent known to me to send in a brief account of her structured home education outcomes. The same thing; she will not be allowed to contribute her story either!

These are just a couple of the ways in which a particular strand of home education attempts to portray itself as the one true faith.

On thinking that one's own way is best

The accusation has been not infrequently levelled at me that I believe that my own way of home educating is the best and that other people's methods are at best ineffective and at worst actually harmful to the children concerned. This is of course perfectly true and I make no apology for it. The only thing I find a little astonishing is the gross hypocrisy of those making this charge. The fact is, we all think that our way of doing things is the best way and that if only others emulated our wise and good ways then whatever process is involved would be a accomplished more smoothly and efficiently. This is true of hobbies, professional activities, child rearing or any other human activity which one cares to mention.

I have known a number of people whose hobby was cross stitch. This is a very genteel pastime and you would think that those who undertook it would be very tolerant of others, but every single person who I knew that ever did cross stitch had her own way of going about things, a way that she was convinced was better than anybody else's. Some regard a different technique for back stitching as little short of heresy. I have observed the same phenomenon with mechanics, sportsmen, window cleaners, psychologists, and parents. All are absolutely sure that their way of doing the thing is best and that if only everybody else followed their lead then everyone would be a good deal happier and the whole world would run more smoothly. I don't see home education as being any different from this. Of course all those who undertake it believe that their way is so much more gentle/firm/sensible/effective/compassionate/ethical/respectful/educational/kind/holistic than anybody else's technique. This is human nature. Of course it is not at all true; some of us are actually harming our children, while others are doing brilliantly. Unfortunately, there is no objective way of deciding which is which. If I have hinted that I believe some parents to be neglecting their children's education by their crackpot methods, they for their part have more than hinted that my own daughter's childhood must have been a nightmare and that my own system sounds cruel!

As I say, there is no way really of deciding which way of home educating a child is the best. Besides, it probably varies greatly from child to child. The point which I am trying to make is that it is ridiculous to reproach me for thinking that my way of doing things is the best and that others should follow my wise advice. Of course I feel this way; so does everybody else. I have not the least doubt that those who criticise me so bitterly think that the way that they are doing things is far better than mine. This is only natural. We all love our children and want what is best for them, however mistaken we might be. It is very rare for a parent to set out on a course which she honestly thinks is harmful for her child. Even in cases like that of Khyra Ishaq I am quite prepared to believe that the mother actually though that she was doing the best for her child. Most of us would say that she was mistaken, but she herself almost certainly was not intending to act in a wickedly cruel fashion. Her obsession with her own weight and with food intake led her onto a wrong path; she was not an evil person.

So it is with all human activity. Whether we are washing up, teaching our children to read or painting a door, we all have our own special way of going about the business that we feel is the best possible way of doing it. I like to rinse the dishes under running water when they have been washed and the sight of somebody smearing them with one of those dirty rags that the English call 'tea towels' makes me cringe! I am sure that others regard my own way of washing up as a little bizarre. So it is with teaching our children. Of course I think my way best; I wouldn't do it otherwise. Just as those slackers who leave their children to fathom out the alphabetic code for themselves imagine, however deluded they might be, that their way is the best. It is hardly sensible to criticise me for believing that I have the best method and thinking that all other home educators should adopt my methods. It would be strange if I didn't feel that way.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Is there a typical home educator?

Although one cannot generalise, I have noticed over the years that some types of people are more commonly home educating parents than others. For instance, I have a sneaking suspicion that very few home educators are in favour of fox hunting! I would also be prepared to bet that there are far more labour voters than conservatives among home educating parents, at least until Ed Balls took over as Secretary of State for Education! Nor would I be at all surprised to learn that vegetarianism was more common, as well as anxiety and depression.

Here are a few more things which I think might be more likely to be found with home educating parents. Firstly of course, they are mainly women. Secondly, I rather think that many of them are single mothers. The UK average is around 16%, or one in six. I'm guessing that this proportion is probably higher among home educators. What about unhappy childhoods? Could it be possible that some of these parents are determined to give their children a better and happier childhood than they themselves had? I happen to know that this is definitely so with a few well known home educators, but I would be keen to hear if it is a common feature. I am pretty sure that the majority have sent their children to school and then subsequently deregistered them.

A natural corollary of this is that if some character traits are commoner among home educating parents, then there might equally well be characteristics which are more likely to be found in the children of home educators. Now of course, this does not mean that there is a typical home educator or a typical home educated child, but never the less I think that some things might be commoner in such children than in the ordinary population. Being sensitive and anxious are the sort of things which I am wondering about here. I do not know whether this is so, I am simply ravelling a thread. I suppose that I am thinking that it is at least possible that a certain type of parent might raise a certain kind of child who might react differently from most children to the rough and tumble of school. A child whose parents have taught her too much about justice and fairness for instance would probably have a little difficulty in adapting to the average school! If this child were also a little more sensitive than most, then the unfairness encountered every day might be a seriously disturbing and cause great unhappiness. I wonder if this might be a possibility? Are home educating parents overly concerned with justice and fairness? Have they taught their children from an early age to expect or require these qualities in others? It is an interesting thought.