Wednesday, 30 June 2010

What has school got to do with it?

Over the last few days I have noticed that when I talk about what I see as the virtues of structured teaching and the shortcomings of autonomous education, a number of people have spoken of how school failed to teach them the sort of things which I have mentioned. One person who comments regularly here seems to think that because I am in favour of conventional teaching, that this must mean I wish to see home educated children sent back to school. All this is very strange. The fault is probably mine, for not making myself clear enough.

I taught my own child at home from her birth until she was sixteen. I have been involved with home education in various ways, both in this country and abroad, for almost forty years. I believe that home education can be a vastly more effective method of education than schools can ever hope to be. This is not a belief that I have held for a few years, but for many. You would be hard pushed to find a more enthusiastic advocate of home education than me. If I thought that moves were ever afoot to ban home education in this country, I would work day and night to fight against such a development. I have never seen anything of the sort happening and consider it unlikely in the future. However......

I do not consider all methods of educating children as being equally effective. The use of punishments, for instance, I consider wrong and counter-productive in education. When I was at school in the late fifties and early sixties, I was beaten for not learning certain things such as French verbs. This did not help me to learn French. I do not believe that this sort of thing is likely to help anybody learn anything. It is a useless and ineffective method of teaching. On the other hand, there are ways of teaching which are very helpful and tend to work. This is the case with school based education and it is also the case with home education. If I meet a teacher who is opposed to the flogging of children as a method of teaching them French, I do not at once assume that he is against schools. I assume that he is against that method of teaching.

I am similarly in favour of some ways of home educating children and very dubious about others. This is because their effectiveness has not been sufficiently demonstrated, at least to my own satisfaction. To say, as some evidently do, 'Ah, he is not in favour of autonomous education, therefore he must be opposed to home education.' is absolutely ludicrous. I am in favour of effective education. Now of course I am quite prepared to believe that I am mistaken in some of my strongly held views on this subject. In other words, although I disapprove of corporal punishment as a useful educational tool, I may be wrong about it; it might actually be very helpful. In the same way, although I am less than enthusiastic about the supposed advantages of autonomous education, I may also be mistaken about that.

However, we can all of us only be guided by what we believe to be true. I believe that although children, like adults, will pick up all sorts of knowledge quite spontaneously, this is not enough by itself for their education. I am of the school of thought which holds that there is a body of knowledge and collection of skills which children must acquire whether or not they wish to do so. More than that, I believe that this is a right which children have and that anybody who does not do all in their power to see that children in their charge learn these skills and have this knowledge, are depriving those children of their rights; they are cheating them of their inheritance, if you will. I feel that this is wrong and so I will do what I can to see that those who have these duties towards children actually fulfil them. To me, this is a question of human rights and I view those who would fail to teach their children as violating these human rights. If in the process of standing up for the rights of those children, I offend the sensibilities of some adult or other, this does not seem to me as important as the rights of the children concerned.

I am, as I said, a great supporter of home education. But this is not an unconditional support, blind to the possible disadvantages of this sort of education. I would not like to see new laws which forced children to go back to school, but I would certainly like to see a law which compelled home educating parents to respect the rights which their children possess. To see those rights trampled upon or simply ignored because adults choose to pursue what they see as an 'alternative' lifestyle is unacceptable to me and I shall continue to speak out about it.

Monday, 28 June 2010

The constructivist theory of education. Part1; as used in schools

Until relatively recently, the accepted method of education in this country was that of the behaviourists. One set out to give knowledge to children and then rewarded those who learnt it. Those who failed to learn what was offered faced sanctions. These days, this type of education is not so popular, particularly in maintained schools. Now, the favourite theory is called constructivism. In this, teachers try to get children to learn by finding out the answer for themselves, often by discussion and experiment. This theory also underpins autonomous education. Autonomous educators, albeit frequently unwittingly, are following a constructivist theory of learning. I have of course simplified both theories dramatically. There are a number of difficulties with constructivism when used in education; I shall first look at the problem when it is used in schools.

To begin with, let us look at a class of ten year olds who are trying to discover which substances sink and which float in water. They are gathered round a tank of water and the idea is that they are going to learn by actually doing, rather than by being told. The only thing wrong with this scheme is that these are real flesh and blood children in a real life setting; children who are moreover oblivious to the distinctions between behaviourist and constructivist theories of education. They regard the activity round the water tank as a welcome break from learning. It is a chance to discuss last night's episode of Eastenders, see who can splash the most water on the floor and to pretend that the bits of plasticene, rubber and wood that they have been given are submarines. The whole process is enormously time consuming. An entire morning has been occupied with setting up, conducting the 'experiment' and clearing up after this session. What with all the talking and messing about, the small matter of which substances sink and which float will soon be forgotten. In other words, they have learned no science whatsoever from this science lesson.

It would certainly have been more effective if the children sat quietly while the teacher simply demonstrated the point which he wished to get across, but of course teachers today have a deep rooted aversion towards what they call 'Chalk and talk' and the rest of us call teaching. They are constructivists to a man (and woman).

Over at the local secondary school, a history lesson is just ending. The kids there have been learning about castles. For their homework they have been told to pretend that they are Norman Barons who have just invaded England. This is a very popular thing in schools. Pretend you are a ten year old Pakistani boy working for 25P a day; how would you feel? Pretend you are living in the Middle Ages and your best friend has just died of Black Death; how would that make you feel? Pretend that you are lady Macbeth..... Anyway, today the home work is to pretend you are a Norman Baron who wants to build a castle. Where would you build it and why?

Now the teacher is a constructivist who wants his pupils to figure out for themselves where and why the Normans built their castles. He can't just tell them; that would defeat the whole object of the exercise, which is to get the children to think for themselves. At the next lesson, the children have all made different guesses. One thinks that the castle should be built by a river which would provide drinking water. Another would site the thing in a forest, a third on an open plain. So it goes on. Eventually, after the home work has been discussed and a noisy row erupted between the kids who are each arguing for their own choices, the teacher is forced to tell them the real place that the Norman's built their castles, i.e. on high places with a good view over the surrounding countryside.

Now comes the interesting bit. A month later, an inquisitive adult who knew of all this foolishness asks the pupils where the Normans built their castles. Not one remembers. They all recollect the discussions about the subject, most can even remember what they thought themselves. Not one knows where the Normans really built their castles. In short, this history lesson has failed to teach any history at all. And that's constructivism in action folks, as it actually works, or fails to work, in modern schools.

This method of teaching in schools is astonishingly time consuming and singularly ineffective. Often, the children fail to learn anything worthwhile from the exercise. By this, I mean they not only fail to learn any science or history, but neither do they learn any useful, transferrable skills. No wonder many independent schools eschew this theory of education and prefer proper teaching; that's why their examination results are so much better. 'Learning' based upon the constructivist theory of education has replaced traditional teaching in maintained schools for purely philosophical reasons, not because it actually works better, it manifestly does not. It is one of the chief reasons why children leave state schools in such an ill educated condition these days.

Ah, you say, in schools this may be so. But what about a one-to-one situation in a relaxed domestic setting? Surely this method will yield better results when used in home education? We will look at this possibility tomorrow.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

An autonomous educational philosophy

A couple of people commenting here have suggested that if I really wished to understand autonomous education, I should study the document below:

Actually of course, this is already horribly familiar to me in various forms. Most local authority officers involved with home education have several versions of this document in their files. Parents who wish to avoid visits frequently download and then cannibalise it in order to provide 'evidence' of the education which they are supposedly providing. It was written by Jan Fortune-Wood who by some accounts actually invented the very expression 'autonomous education'. This being so, it is probably a safe bet that this represents the mainstream thinking on this topic. Let's have a look and see what we can say about it.

The first thing to strike one about this text is that it is more than a little incoherent. It is hard to say whether the author intends to prescribe a course of action or describe how children actually learn. In other words, is she using the word 'theory' to set out the framework for a practice or is she meaning 'theory' in the scientific meaning of the word as being the confirmation of an hypothesis which has been made by many detailed observations or experiments? It would take too long to go through the whole thing, practically every sentence cries out for refutation, and so I shall today limit myself to one or two of the more obvious absurdities which strike the eye immediately. Tomorrow I shall talk about the wider theory of education upon which this is based, namely constructivism.

Almost at once, we run into difficulties. A quotation by Karl Popper is given, which says:

We do not discover new facts or new effects by copying them

There follows a list of other ways that we do not discover new facts or new effects, but let us look at this first part of the sentence. It is demonstrably untrue to state so definitely that we do not discover new facts by copying them. To be sure, this is not the only way that we discover new facts, but it is without doubt one of them. From our birth we also discover new effects by copying them. A baby will copy what it sees others doing. For instance we might hide our eyes with our hands, thus shutting the light out. A baby copies this and so discovers a new effect. Again, this is not the only method of discovering a new effect, but it is certainly one of them. After throwing in a quotation by Gombrich, although I'm not sure why his ideas are relevant here, the author says blithely:

On such a theory, extrinsic motivation is ruled out as a totally ineffective strategy for learning

This is staggering. It does not in the least follow on from the previous sentences and is really little more than a bald statement of what the writer apparently believes to be true. Nothing has been adduced to support the assertion; it is simply presented as a given! What she is actually saying is, 'I think that extrinsic motivation is an ineffective strategy and so did Popper'. We are not told how or why such a strategy has been ruled out. There follow five points which are it seems the theoretical basis for Ms Fortune-Wood's educational philosophy. Number four begins:

The growth of knowledge is a creative and non-mechanical process within the mind of the learner

Is it? Well it is sometimes, but certainly not always. Sometimes the growth of knowledge is a mechanical process which is anything but creative. Or does the author mean that this is how she thinks the growth of knowledge should be? We face the same problem we saw earlier; it is far from clear whether the writer is describing how she thinks things are or how she would like them to be. It is when we look at the section headed Mode of Learning, that we reach the crux of the matter. The mode of learning described is based upon the constructivist theory of learning. This is pretty much the standard theory of education in this country these days, having edged out behaviourism. I shall go into more detail tomorrow, but this theory is one of the reasons why I did not send my daughter to school. For now it is enough to examine this statement:

In this theory emphasis is placed on the learner and it is the learner who interacts with problems to construct his/her own solutions and ideas.

At once, most readers will spot the problem. If the learner constructs his own solutions and ideas, these may be quite wrong. For example the learner might construct his own solution to the puzzling movement of the sun across the sky and decide that the sun is moving round the earth. This is wrong and if he says nothing to anybody about it, he will go to the grave with this wrong idea. Or again, the learner might meet very few black people. If he only meets two in his childhood and they are both stupid and lazy, then the learner might well form an hypothesis that black people are stupid and lazy. He may not mention this false hypothesis to anybody; just hold it within him. This leads to racial prejudice and it is a very bad thing. One of the ways to deal with this problem is by actually teaching children about other cultures and setting out deliberately to show them that black people are very similar to white people. If we simply allow them to form their own hypotheses about this subject, they may do so without telling us and thus not giving us the opportunity to point out that their ideas are mistaken. This is the problem with the idea of the learner constructing his own solutions and ideas; many of them will be wrong. We shall look in more detail at this problem tomorrow.

Under the heading of Basic Skills, we find this gem:

It is a core assumption of autonomous education that children will acquire the skills they need to take advantage of their environment and pursue their own aspirations.

Yes, it is an assumption and as such completely worthless. If I were to write an educational philosophy and state categorically:

It is a core assumption that children are much better off being at school than they are at home

I would be jeered at and quite rightly. A core assumption indeed! I wonder if the author thought that by describing this assumption as a 'core' assumption that this would somehow make it more respectable than any old assumption? It does not; it is still shocking intellectual laziness.

The fact that so many parents read this nonsense and apparently approve of it so heartily, is worrying in the extreme. They read it, swallow it whole and then regurgitate it to their own local authorities. Do none of them realise what drivel this is? No wonder that some local authority officers get irritated by receiving various bastardised versions of this thing. Horrifying to think that for thousands of children across the country, this mush represents the ideology behind their education!

Saturday, 26 June 2010

More about autonomous learning.

One of the difficulties I tend to have when discussing autonomous education is that there are so many different strands. When I tackle the ideas expressed by authors such as Paul Goodman or Ivan Illich, somebody is sure to pounce and claim that this is not authentic autonomous education. The same has happened with whichever writer or parent whose ideas on the subject I have tried to discuss. Somebody always comes along and tells me that these are the wrong ideas and that I should only pay attention to this person or that's views about it. Every autonomous educator seems to believe that she alone follows and understands the purest form of this philosophy. This of course is exactly what happened yesterday when I quoted Maire Stafford. Somebody posted a comment asking, ' Why are you discussing an individual home educator as though they are autonomous education?'
Never the less, I shall stick with what Stafford has said about this subject on her blog, as it ties in with much of what many other people have said about autonomous education. By looking at what an autonomously home educating parent says, I should also be safe from the accusation of setting up straw men.

Here is another quotation, which sums up what many parents have said about autonomous education:

For autonomous educators such coercive education is not only wrong, it is far less effective because over a childhood the autodidactic child will, as a side effect of following their own interests, cover everything they will need to become a well functioning citizen in the society to which they belong.

Very interesting idea. Of course a child may cover everything needed to become a well functioning citizen, purely as a by product of following her own interests. There is no reason though why this should be so; to claim that they will necessarily do so does not seem to me a logical conclusion. In short, this statement is no more than bare assertion which we are invited to take on trust. After all, many children at school fail wholly to cover everything they need to become well functioning citizens. What grounds do we have for supposing that the case will be better for those educated at home? Surely a good deal must depend upon the parents. If the home educating parent is lazy, cruel, selfish and dishonest; then a lot of this is likely to rub off on the child. This will then make the child less likely to become a well functioning citizen. If on the other hand the child next door goes to school and in addition has parents who are kind, industrious, honest and altruistic, then this child will be more likely than others to grow into a well functioning citizen.

I suppose a good deal depends too upon what the author means by the expression 'well functioning citizen'. Perhaps she means somebody who is able to take part in civic life, understands the nature of government, is politically aware enough to be able to exercise his franchise sensibly, wishes perhaps to become a local councillor or magistrate? Again, why should we think that an autonomously educated person who has not been to school is more likely to turn into this sort of individual than one who has attended a good school and has conscientious parents who make an effort to teach her about the duties and responsibilities of citizenship? In other words, I can't see why the child following her own interests is more likely to become a well functioning citizen than one who is instructed systematically.

those lucky enough to have been enabled to learn in this way from the start have not only had the opportunity to thoroughly explore their interests, but have been living in the real world and experiencing the consequences of their choices all their lives.

All children and adults live in the real world; there is no other. Children at school experience the consequences of their choices no less than an autonomously educated child at home. More so, probably. Like most parents, I tried to protect my child from the bad consequences of her decisions as far as possible. This is what parents do, because they are especially fond of their children. Teachers care less about the children they teach, because these are not their children. They are accordingly more likely to allow the bad consequences to befall the child than a parent would be. So I find it more likely that children at school would experience the consequences of their choices than those in the constant company of a loving parent.

Much of the stuff written about this type of education depends more upon faith than evidence. That's fine, after all I go to church every week; I must have some history of taking things on faith! As long as this system of education is accepted as just that, a belief system which needs to be taken on trust, then I have no problem at all with it. It is just one more offbeat lifestyle chosen by a number of people. It is when it is guyed up as a viable alternative to conventional education that my hackles begin to rise and I feel the need to examine it perhaps a little more harshly.

Autonomous 'learning'

An accusation not infrequently levelled at me is that I only imperfectly understand the concept of autonomous education. Now while it is of course true that I was connected with the Free Schools movement forty years ago and also familiar with the writings of people like Paul Goodman and John Holt before some of those who criticise me in this way were even born, perhaps there is something in the notion. Maybe I have not kept up to date with the latest developments in the field of this sort of education. I had occasion recently to visit Maire Stafford's blog. I was there to look at her latest struggle with having a Freedom of Information request fulfilled. The gist of this is that she has been sent a document and wishes to complain about it. The only thing is that she had not had time to read it and decide just what she was complaining about. Most of us approach the matter from the other direction; we first read the document and only then decide if we wish to complain. Still, that is by the by. Maire Stafford gives a brief account of the idea of autonomous education on her blog and so I shall take this as being a fairly up to date and modern view of the matter.

Here is a quotation from Stafford's exposition which features in many such accounts. A child:

picks up ideas and skills which are significant in their culture in the same way as they learn to walk

I have seen this strange statement so often, that I think we may safely take it that this is pretty standard for those who follow this pedagogical system. This faulty analogy lies at the very heart of autonomous education. Let us look at the idea that a child 'learns' to walk.

Within twenty minutes of the birth of a foal it will be standing up. In no time at all it will be walking about. It has not 'learned' to do this; its doing so is simply a consequence of being born a quadruped. It has neither been taught to do so, nor has it had to learn by imitation or example. this is simply what this particular organism does. Similarly, the weaver bird of Africa will tie knots in order to fasten a nest to a branch. It does not have to do so; this ability is coded in the genes. Hatch a weaver bird egg in the laboratory and then raise the bird in isolation and it will tie knots if given grass. It does not 'learn' to do this.

In precisely the same way, the human baby, a biped, will stand up at a certain age and then start walking. It does this in stages; rolling, bottom shuffling, hanging onto furniture and so on. The process is slower than in a foal, taking months rather than minutes, but it is essentially the same. The baby does this because it is a biped, not because it has 'learned' to do so. Obviously, the baby has never seen anybody bottom shuffling or staggering round the room hanging onto the furniture; It is not learning from example! Because the whole thing takes so much longer than in deer and foals, we have the illusion that the baby has 'learned' to walk. One might as well say that an oak tree has 'learned' to carry out photosynthesis! All living things have certain things that they will do, whether it is converting CO2 and water into sugars , walking on four legs or walking on two. these things are a natural feature of the organism, not something which has to be learned.

How different is the case of something like place value in Western mathematics. Here is an idea which has only been around for a few centuries. Looking at a string of digits such as 7237, we realise at once that the 7pick up ideas on the left is actually worth a thousand times as much as the 7 on the right. This is a very strange idea which certainly does have to be learned. It is very different therefore from standing up and walking.

This confusion between on the one hand a natural feature of the human organism which is transmitted by DNA and is inherent in the creature, and on the other the cultural inheritance which is transmitted by external means is a very common one in those who follow autonomous education. It is the root cause of many of the problems which I have with this system. If those who profess to follow it can begin with such a simple and fundamental error, what hope for the edifice erected upon such a foundation? Because if the basis for the whole method is that children, pick up the same way that they learn to walk, then clearly, the whole thing is based upon a nonsense. Walking is something natural which comes from within the child; reading and mathematics are something artificial come from outside. The two cases are wholly different.

Friday, 25 June 2010

How do home educating parents really feel about stricter regulations?

We saw last year that somewhere in the region of 2% or 3% of home educating parents were opposed enough to the Children, Schools and Families Bill to sign petitions against it. How did the rest feel about it? If they were all madly in favour, why didn't they organise pro-legislation picnics or start signing petitions asking for new regulations? In other words, how did the great majority of home educators actually feel about the idea of registration, annual visits and so on? In order to answer this, we must examine the difference between how ordinary citizens act and how they wish their society to be ruled.

Let's start with a simple example. many of us buy pirate DVDs. We do this , despite the fact that we are aware that this is breaking the law of copyright and indeed sometimes of theft. By doing this, we are not saying that we wish for the law on theft and copyright to be abolished. We most of us recognise that such laws are necessary, it is just that we feel that they should not be applied to us there, at that moment. Most people do this a lot: break or ignore rules, regulations and laws. We do not really disapprove of them, just wish to ignore them. For instance, five years ago a new section of the building regulations was introduced which made it illegal for anybody but a qualified electrician to carry out certain work. Now like most people, I still tinker with sockets and light switches, but I am aware that the law forbids it. I was irritated by the new law, but recognised that it was sensible. Many DIY enthusiasts campaigned about this in the same way that home educators opposed the Children, Schools and Families Bill. Even so, most knew that it was a sensible precaution.

I have remarked before that while some home educating parents were vociferously opposed to the bill and although some actually welcomed more help from their local authority, the vast majority probably felt the way that I did about home education. That is to say they wished simply to get on with without being bothered by the council with forms, visits and so on. I certainly did not volunteer to register myself with the local authority and many parents feel exactly the same way. However when we were stopped by a truancy patrol, although I did not have to give my name and address, I did so. Why? Because the local authority also have a job to do and it might make it easier for them if I sometimes cooperate! Besides, in general I think it a good thing that they do know how many children in their area are being educated at home.

As I said to begin with, most of us do things every day that violate some rule, law or principle. We don't actually want the laws to be abolished, but we feel that they should not apply to us too strictly! This really is a common feature of human nature. So many of those parents who have not registered with their local authorities are not strongly opposed on principle to doing so. They probably regard it in general as quite right and proper for others to do so; just not them. After all, they know that they are not abusing or neglecting their child, so why should they and the council have any dealings with each other?

What reason do I have for supposing that most parents felt this way? Partly because of the great silence from the majority of them. A few hundred submissions to the Badman review and select committee, perhaps three thousand names elsewhere. The other 98% or so probably wish to be left alone, but at the same time realise that it might be a good idea for their local authority to know a little more about other home educators in the area. Not them of course! Like me, most of them know very well that their children are safe and receiving an education. This is what humans are like. We frequently behave in contradictory ways. So although I for one felt that I need not have any dealings with my local authority, I was well aware that there were others whom they really should be involved with. But my own selfish interest in avoiding fuss and paperwork meant that I would not help with such a project and instead would keep myself to myself. When I was stopped by the truancy patrol, I felt in a sense a little guilty, because I knew that it was quite reasonable for the council to wish to keep track of children out of school and all I was doing was making their job harder in order to avoid a little personal inconvenience.

We seldom welcome changes in the law which will make our own life a little more awkward, even when we recognise full well that such laws are needed. Most of us are inherently conservative in such matters and have the attitude that if the legal system has been working well enough up to this point, why change it? I suspect though, that many home educating parents realise at the back of their minds that there is a good case to be made for keeping track of children who are not at school; at the very least knowing how many there are and where they are living. Their problem is not with such a law in principle, but only in its application to them.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

The dark side of home education

Most parents who choose not to send their children to school make this decision because they believe this to be in the best interests of the children themselves. This is true whatever the educational methods used and regardless of the circumstances which lead up to home education. This is good and healthy parenting; putting the child first and working around her needs rather than the parent's wishes. Unfortunately, not all home educating parents are like this. Some fail to send their children to school because the children are answering a need in the adult. Both mothers and fathers can behave in this way, although as we shall see there is a difference in their reasons for doing so.

Let us look first at fathers. Many, perhaps most of the famous or notorious home educators have been men. John Stuart Mills, Ruth Lawrence, Judit Polgar, Edith Stern and Sufiah Yusof are all well known products of home education by fathers. Why did these fathers educate their own children? The answer is simple; they wished to produce geniuses. Now there is nothing wrong with that as such, provided of course that the child's welfare is at the centre of the enterprise. In cases of this sort though, it often appears that the whole project is a weird obsession of the father, that the object of the exercise is not a child's happiness, but a peculiar man proving something to the world. Judit Polgar for instance spent eight hours a day working on chess when she was a child. Neither Ruth Lawrence or John Stuart Mills were allowed to meet children their own age. Sufiah Yosef's father used to keep the house cold so that his daughter would concentrate more. Hard to believe that the child's happiness and fulfilment lay at the heart of projects such as these! In some sense, these children were fulfilling their fathers' needs and ambitions.

So much for the dysfunctional home educating father. What of mothers? It has to be said straight away that there are very few mothers like this around; the sort who are obsessed with making their children into geniuses. I have certainly never even heard of a home educating mother who behaves in this way. There are however mothers who keep their kids at home because the children are fulfilling the mother's needs. Some local authorities expressed the fear during the Ofsted survey, that some home educated children were kept at home in order to act as companions. There is no doubt at all that this happens; I have myself seen cases of lonely women who want their child at home to provide them with company. This has been a trend for many years. One of the earliest cases of precedent after the 1944 education Act which was used in the fifties against parents who wished to home educate was Jenkins v Howell in 1949. In this case a mother who was an invalid needed her child to stay with her to help around the house. She claimed to be educating the kid too.

I don't know how common this sort of thing is, mothers who want their child to stay home to act as companions. It happens and just as in the case of the fathers who are trying to create a genius, the child's welfare is being forced to give way to the parent's needs.

The danger to a home educated child of having a parent who is a homicidal maniac intent upon abusing or killing her is very small. Cases do crop up from times to time, but one cannot really legislate such things out of existence. Somebody wishing to murder her child will manage to do it just as well during the school holidays; being at school will not and cannot prevent such things. Such parents might be rare, but the sort of parent who keeps the child at home to satisfy his or her own needs is a good deal more common. Thinking for example of Judit Polgar, somebody who comments regularly here is obsessed with turning his child into a chess genius. His own father was very keen on chess and he always regretted that his own chess did not become better. Now, he is determined to sublimate his past regrets in his own son, achieving a measure of vicarious glory in this way. There is no shortage of home educating mothers who speak of their children in a way that would be more appropriate for husbands and best friends. It is hard to escape the conclusion that these children are filling a gap in their mothers' lives. This would also go some way to explaining why education often takes second place to the actual lifestyle when such women are asked what home education means to them.

As I said to begin with, I have no doubt at all that the majority of parents who educate their children at home are doing so because they feel it is the best course of action for the child. There is though a substantial minority who are keeping their kids at home for other purposes. It is right and proper to consider this matter when talking of home education. Both parents and educational professionals tend to become sidetracked into arguing about the very rare murders and cases of sexual abuse of home educated children. The greater danger lies in the prevalence of home education being undertaken not for the child's benefit, but the parent's.

Keeping the faith

One of the things that an outsider finds very striking about the home education movement is the apparently united front which is presented to the world. Why, there may be eighty thousand home educating parents in this country, but they all feel the same way about Graham Badman and his report, all have the same thoughts about monitoring by local authorities, every one of them rejects the conclusions of the Ofsted report and so on. Of course most local authority officers and also staff at Ofsted and the Department for Education realise that this is nonsense and they know very well how this particular illusion is maintained. For the general public though, it might be interesting to look at this subject.

When we see a headline in the newspaper which says, 'Furious home educators reject Ofsted findings' or Badman report or anything else; what is actually happening? Well, usually it means that a spokesperson for Education Otherwise or HE-UK has decided to ring a newspaper and express a view on behalf of home educators. Nothing wrong with that of course, until you look a little more closely and ask yourself just how many people are being represented. Education Otherwise, for example, has a nominal membership of around two and a half thousand. This equates to about 3% of home educating parents. There's a high turnover; many parents join just for a year or so when first they begin to home educate. The organisation is really run by a couple of dozen people. Sure, they have to have an AGM which is theoretically open to everybody, or at least all Signed Up Members, but even then there is a great art in preventing people from attending such things. Simply give only a weeks notice, say, and then hold the AGM in the Outer Hebrides; that should ensure that only your friends turn up. The result is that the 'outrage' expressed in the press release is purely the opinion of one woman, not home educators in general. Even worse, the news media, in their usual lazy way, have lists of people who can be guaranteed to give an instant and angry response. They often ring people like this up and try and get them to express a view on the latest development. So it was that the BBC contacted one of the least temperate and emotionally stable home educating parents in the entire country last week to try and elicit her views on the Ofsted report. What a mercy that she didn't feel up to the task!

Mind you, we see a lot of comments on online newspapers and so on. Surely these are spontaneous expressions of the views of ordinary parents? I was, many years ago, in the Soviet Union, and I remember a factory worker showing me a circular from the local party chief. It announced that there would that day be a 'spontaneous outpouring of the people's anger at American imperialist aggression in Vietnam'. They would assemble at the Androvski Gardens at 2 PM sharp and march to the US Embassy. This reminds me very much of the 'spontaneous' responses to news about home education. What happens is that on several Internet lists news is relayed of newspaper articles daring to criticise home education or support regulation of it. Around fifty regular customers then post like mad on the comments pages, using a variety of secret identities. Mike Fortune-Wood might post as Marske123, others will sign themselves tinpanali, firebird and so on. The end result looks like a lot of ordinary parents who are shocked and disgusted at the news they see. Any normal person reading this will be unlikely to guess that this is part of a carefully orchestrated campaign; it looks so natural. If anybody posts a comment supporting the new regulation or whatever, there are at once comments on the lists about these and people are urged to shout the person down. Two popular lists for coordinating this kind of thing are the Graham Badman Action Group and HE-UK, both of which are Yahoo groups.

The same handful of usual suspects were to be found sending in evidence to the select committee of course. It was amusing to go through these people and spot which were genuine home educators living in this country. Some had stopped being home educators years ago, some lived in Canada or the USA, many of those in this country were just Libertarian types who had been urged by friends to express a view against greater regulation of home education. Here too, the influence of the lists is felt. Many of the submissions have an eerily familiar feel about them; the same points, in the same order, using the same phrases. This caused much amusement among those reading them.

In fact opposition to regulation of home education is coordinated and conducted by a few hundred people. They were very good at getting people to sign petitions and so on, but then getting people to sign petitions against some New Labour initiative last year was pretty easy, whatever the subject.

I have a suspicion that there was nowhere near the furious anger against the plans for regulation last year as was being made out to be the case. I am guessing that most people, like me, would rather have been left to get on with home education without involvement with their local authority. I certainly saw no need to draw any attention to myself and register with either of the local authorities in the areas where my child grew up. However, when she did come to their attention, I wasn't that fussed. For an ordinary home educating family, an annual visit is no big deal. I think that many people feel like that; they don't particularly want visits, but then again it does not really matter to them. There are also many who actually want the help and support of their local authority. And there are too those who are very bitterly opposed to visits and will do anything to stop them happening. However, apart from those two ends of the spectrum, I rather think that most people, as I say, would prefer not to have visits, but will put up with them as a necessary evil if and when they occur. People like us though, who do not really feel that strongly about the matter, are unlikely to organise protests and get petitions signed. After all, we're not really that bothered in the first place! This leaves the field open for those who do feel very strongly about it; the three hundred or so who actually did all the organising last year.

I dare say that some people will remark that for every activist who was beavering away, there were probably twenty or thirty at their local groups who supported them and agreed with them. I shall post tomorrow on this aspect of things; how members of groups and Internet lists are discouraged from expressing heterodox views and opinions. This is really more a question of psychology, but it is certainly worth examining.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Is home education as effective as schooling?

When we are looking at any educational technique, whether it is open-plan classrooms or kinaesthetic learning, the first question to ask is, 'Does it work?' Or at least, does it work for most of the children with whom it is used? The next question to ask is, 'What, if any, are the disadvantages?' So we might perhaps ask ourselves, is it expensive? Are some children harmed by it? These questions remain the same, regardless of what we think personally about the method under consideration. When traditional classrooms with all the desks facing the front were scrapped in the early seventies, some older teachers inveighed against the, as they saw it, trendy nonsense. This is quite the wrong attitude. Whether a new idea offends our sensibilities has no more to do with the case than the flowers that bloom in the spring. The important question is, does it work?

How will we know if some system of education works? It is of course not enough for a few people to say, 'I know it works, look at my kid.' Any system used with a large number of children is bound to have some successes and some failures. In order to see whether or not it is an improvement on what we are already doing, we need to look at lots of children and see how they are doing with the new methods and then compare them with lots of children who are using the old system. This is how we found out that something like the Initial Teaching Alphabet, which seemed at first sight to be a really, really good idea, was actually a really, really bad idea.

It is claimed by those who follow this system, that home education is actually an improvement on schooling and that children learn better at home than they do at school. This is a startling idea, that all those highly trained professionals in specially built institutions are surplus to requirements and that in fact untrained parents can do a better job by themselves. Still, let's be open minded about it. Let's look at the evidence and reserve judgement until we have done so. It is now that we run into a serious problem, a problem which both Ofsted and the Department for Education are trying to find a way round. Because the evidence so far is very sparse and contradictory. True, there is quite a lot of research from the United States, but we must treat this with caution because the motives of home educators in America may be very different from those in this country.

The greatest difficulty we face when trying to assess home education in this country objectively is that home educators by and large do not seem to want to answer questions about what they are doing. In 2003, for example, Education Otherwise sent a survey to all its members, asking about their motivations and various other things, trying to put together a picture of home education in this country. 80% of those who received the questionnaire did not want to answer. The same thing happened when Paula Rothermel sent out two and a half thousand questionnaires in February 1997. Again, 80% of parents did not wish to discuss what they were doing. York Consulting found exactly the same problem in 2006. The result is that we actually know very little about how effective home education is in any respect. I am of course not talking just about how many children are passing five GCSEs at grades A*-C, the government's favourite benchmark. I am also thinking of such things as physical and mental health, employment and things like that. We know how what percentage of twenty five year olds have mental health problems of various kinds, we know about employment levels, all sorts of things in fact. Because nearly everybody has been to school, this gives us a baseline for how schooled adults are doing. What we cannot do currently is see how those who have been home educated compare on these measures. Are they more stable mentally or less? More likely to be in employment, less likely or about the same? What percentage go on to higher education? It is only by examining data like these that we can be sure that home education is at least as good for young people as school. It might of course be a lot better. On the other hand, it might be associated with increased health problems, mental illness, drug and alcohol use, high unemployment; things like that.

Unfortunately, whenever somebody tries to find out about this sort of thing, there is an uproar. Remember the boycott some tried to start of the Ofsted work last year? The fuss about the DfE's pilot for the longitudinal research? Of course, these people are the enemy, it is understandable that parents would be reluctant to trust them. However, as we have seen, precisely the same thing happens when Education Otherwise asks questions.

I happen to believe that home education can be at least as effective as an education delivered by a school. Of course I believe that; otherwise I would have sent my daughter to school! There is though a good deal of scepticism among some teachers, local authority officers, social workers and staff in the Department for Education about the benefits of this type of education. The question of new legislation did not vanish with the defeat of the Children, Schools and Families Bill, as has been seen from the recent Ofsted report. All it would take would be a single death of a home educated child in unfortunates circumstances to bring the matter to mind and precipitate a hasty and ill judged new law. It is therefore in the interests of all home educating parents to demonstrate that what they are doing is an effective and worthwhile alternative to school. The strange reluctance to allow outsiders to see what they are doing must end.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Taking it personally

I have always been a great fan of the Look and Say or Whole Word method of teaching children to read. It is what I used on my own child successfully and I have also used it with many other children. Not everybody approves though. Here is Samuel Blumenfeld, a well know American educationist, on this way of teaching children:

It is known that by imposing Look and say (or whole word) teaching techniques on an alphabetic writing system, one can artificially induce dyslexia, thereby creating a learning block or reading neurosis. Reading disability is induced by the Look and Say method.....

Other writers have blamed the Look and Say method for an epidemic of illiteracy. Dear me, I seem to have made a terrible error. Fancy being responsible for all that dyslexia and illiteracy! Of course, none of this bothers me unduly, it is just that some people prefer to use phonics to teach reading, while others would rather use autonomous methods or Look and Say. The great difference is that when an advocate of synthetic phonics reads an article advocating Look and Say and criticising phonics or vice versa, he does not become furiously angry and take it as a personal attack. How different, how very different from the reaction of those who prefer autonomous methods!

When I wrote an article for a newspaper last year in which I said such things as that I believed that autonomous methods caused incalculable harm to the education of the children upon whom they were used, the reaction was interesting. I have read many similar statements about the methods I follow myself, without being at all concerned about it. My own methods of home education, after all, apparently cause dyslexia and illiteracy. Even a few days ago, someone commented here that I had 'defamed' autonomous educators in my articles. This is so strange that I am at a loss to know how to deal with it. I wonder what readers think I do when I read articles by people like Samuel Blumenfeld which say horrible things about my educational techniques? Well, to start with I don't contact those planning to publish his books and urge them not to publish any more of them. Nor do I contact the editors of magazines for which he writes in order to denounce him. I do not write to Congressmen and tell them that he is a dishonest fool. Nor do I invent stories about him and spread them across the Internet. The reason I don't do all these things is not because I am a pleasant and forgiving sort of person; I am nothing of the sort. It is because I realise that he is discussing an idea, not launching a personal attack on me. Do any readers honestly think that he has 'defamed' me in his books? Would I be justified in being angry and upset because he believes that children should be taught in a different way from that which I have myself chosen?

Debates on education often become quite heated. The late Ted Wragg for instance, referred to those who favoured the teaching of reading by phonics as 'phobics'! However nobody takes any of this personally. If I read that my own methods have done incalculable harm to the education of children, and I have actually read this in the Times Educational Supplement, then I am more likely to laugh at the hyperbole than begin a vicious campaign of character assassination against the author.

There is something profoundly odd about this. One can freely discuss all sorts of educational techniques with all types of people. One can exaggerate the virtues of one's own methods and lampoon the systems which others choose. This happens all the time in magazines, journals, newspapers, television and conferences. Those who espouse synthetic phonics demonstrate that people like me are responsible for all the dyslexia and illiteracy in the country. Those who agree with me show that the phonics merchants are idiots who are putting children off reading for pleasure. There is no animosity in any of this; if I meet somebody devoted to phonics, I am not going to snub him or tell others that he has 'defamed' me. It is only when one criticises or questions the efficacy of autonomous education that the venom and spite begin to flow. Some of the reactions which I have observed have honestly caused me to question the mental stability of those who are so bitterly angry about criticism of their educational methods. I mean, why would anybody get so worked up if somebody said she was hopelessly wrong in her approach? It happens as I say, to me, quite regularly and I don't even feel a slight irritation.

I am curious to know whether anybody can shed light on this curious phenomenon. It is certainly not all autonomous educators, but definitely enough to make it a feature of this type of education. At any rate, one never observes such behaviour in even the most fanatical supporter of synthetic phonics. In short, what is it with these people?

Saturday, 19 June 2010

The legality, or otherwise, of home education in England

A few days ago I looked at the idea that Hitler banned home education in Germany; a dubious claim at best. Today I wish to examine another integral part of the whole mythos of home education in this country. This is the notion that the 1944 Education Act somehow changed the situation regarding home education in Britain and, in a sense, made the practice legal. This is of course absolute nonsense; home education is no more legal or illegal now than it was a hundred and twenty years ago. Indeed, there is a case to be made that home education by parents is actually illegal in this country and has been so since 1880. It could in any case be stopped very quickly without any new laws being passed at all. To see why this should be so, we need to look at the background of home education, going back to the Victorian era.

Until the middle of the Nineteenth Century, school attendance in this country was completely voluntary. If parents didn't want to send their children, then that was fine, there was no more to be said. Several government commissions were set up to look into the question of parents who chose not to send their children to school. The Newcastle Report into the State of Popular Education in England was published in 1861 and argued against compulsion in education. The authors of the report said:

Any universal compulsory system appears to us neither attainable nor
desirable. An attempt to replace an independent system of education by
a compulsory system, managed by the government, would be met by
objections, both religious and political...

Sentiments with which many home educators would still agree. Never the less on February 17th, 1870 W. E. Forster introduced his Elementary Education Act, which was the first step on the road to compulsory schooling. This act provided for the setting up of Board schools. Many parents simply refused to cooperate until another Education Act in 1880 made attendance at the schools compulsory. Compulsory that is, unless provision was made for the child's education elsewhere. Forster himself said of the matter:

We give power to the school boards to frame bye-laws for compulsory
attendance of all children within their district from five to twelve. They
must see that no parent is under a penalty for not sending his child to
school if he can show reasonable excuse; reasonable excuse being
education elsewhere, or sickness...

Forster's 'education elsewhere' is very similar to the 1944 and 1996 act's 'by regular attendance at school or otherwise'.

In the decade after the passing of the 1880 Education Act, prosecutions for the non-attendance of children at school were running at over a hundred thousand a year. It was the commonest offence in Britain, with the exception of drunkenness. It took the passage of a further Act in 1891, which made elementary board schools free, before the majority of parents accepted the situation and the custom of sending children to school became, among ordinary people, universal. At no time at all did anybody consider for a moment that the phrase, 'Education elsewhere' could possibly have been meant to refer to parents teaching their own children. It had been included so that families who could afford to do so were able to hire tutors, teachers and governesses to teach their children. This was of course precisely the same reason that those few words, 'or otherwise' were put into the 1944 Education Act. Many well to do families including the Royal family preferred to engage teachers to instruct their children at home, at least when they were young. If these clauses had not been included, the truancy officer might have been knocking on the door of Buckingham Palace in the nineteen thirties!

For the first thirty years after the passage of the 1880 Education Act, it was assumed by everybody; teachers, governments, courts, parents and everybody else, that this act had made it illegal not to send a child to school or have him taught by a qualified person. It was as simple as that. Home education by parents was actually believed to have been forbidden by law. In 1911, a parent was prosecuted not for teaching her own child, but because the standard of education was thought to be too poor. In his judgement in this case, Bevan v Shears, Lord Alverstone said:

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

This judgement simply meant that the education which children received out of school could be different from that which children at school were getting. It had no bearing on home education as such. For more than forty years after Bevan v Shears, home education in this country by parents was still thought to be illegal. The passage of the 1944 Education Act did not affect this perception; it was thought to be self evidently true that parents could not educate their own children.

In 1952, a mother in Norfolk called Joy baker decided not to send her children to school, but instead to teach them herself at home. Her local authority issued a School Attendance Order and prosecuted her. For the next eight years, Joy baker fought her way through the courts, trying to prove that the 1944 Education Act allowed her to home educate. Finally, in 1961, she managed to convince a court that her interpretation of the law might be correct. Neither this case nor any of the other landmark decisions reached as far as the House of Lords.

Any decision like this by a lower court can be over-ruled by the court above it. In other words, if a local authority were to issue an SAO and then keep appealing if the courts decided that home education was an acceptable way of meeting the requirements of the 1996 Education Act, then in theory the Supreme Court could reverse the decisions in both the Baker case and others and rule that home education was not allowed after all by the act! Another way this could happen without new laws would be if the government issued a Statutory Order defining what is meant by a 'suitable education', something which is a distinct possibility. All that would be necessary would be to frame it in such a way that a suitable education was defined as one delivered by a qualified teacher and most home education would become illegal at a stroke.

I don't for a moment think either of these situations is likely, but when we are criticising the Germans for their harsh laws, it is worth bearing in mind that our own laws are just as open to the interpretation that home education is forbidden, as was the case from 1880 to 1961, as to thinking it is permitted.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Free schools

There has been excitement among some home educating parents at the news that the government will allow charities, churches and even groups of parents to set up their own schools; these will be funded by central government but free from any local authority control. Considering the enormous antipathy felt towards their local authority by many parents of home educated children, it is not to be wondered at that this idea should sound attractive. In reality, it is of course likely to prove a complete non-starter. Any such school will have to have a very detailed educational plan and also some account of the expertise of those involved in the enterprise. You don't get hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers money that easily!

It is a great pity that things are not as easy as they used to be forty years ago. During Edward Heath's administration in the early nineteen seventies, anybody at all could set up a school with hardly any paperwork. Quite a few parents banded together to start these so-called 'Free schools' and they were nearly all home educators.

There is a bit of a myth that home education was almost unknown before 1976 when education otherwise was founded. This isn't really true. Quite a few parents in the late sixties and early seventies didn't send their children to school and nothing much seemed to happen to most of them. Often, these children were part of hippy communes or associated generally with the Alternative Society. Others were disaffected fourteen and fifteen year olds whom some schools were content to deregister and simply forget about. Often this group became mixed up too with the free schools, with sometimes unfortunate consequences.

In 1970, the year that Heath became Prime Minister, the requirements for registering as a school were very simple. You needed to have at least five children and at least one of those involved in the scheme needed to be a qualified teacher. That was pretty much it. You filled out some forms from the Department of Education and Science, they came and had a look round your house, old shop, corner of a warehouse or whatever and that was it. Local authorities were often quite pleased about such 'schools' as it enabled them to lose a few troublesome pupils, many of who were officially truants anyway.

A few examples of these places might prove interesting to modern day home educators. In January 1972, two sets of parents, the Greens and Johns, set up a school in one room at 32, Parkfield Street in Manchester's Moss Side district. A few other local parents approached them and asked if their own children could attend. These children were unhappy at school because of things like corporal punishment. And so what had begun as a family school for a few home educated children turned into a community resource. It took until September for Parkfield Street to be officially registered as a school. this was because the whole place was run in a very chaotic fashion. Although they didn't call themselves so, the parents who set the thing up were what we would describe today as autonomous educators. They didn't want to tell children what to learn and were happy for them to decide for themselves what to do each day. Both they and most of the other parents who started schools like this were 'deschoolers' who followed Ivan Illich's ideas. Unfortunately, some of the children from the district who were more or less truanting began to hang out there and the premises became a byword in the neighbourhood as a place where kids could spend the day if the didn't want to attend school. There were rumours of drugs and other even more unsavory things. It folded up in early 1973.

Other free schools lasted longer. White Lion Free School in Islington for instance was still going strong after a decade. It started in September 1972 at a building provided by the council at 57, White Lion Street. Initially there were twenty seven pupils at the school and some of those who set it up and ran it were qualified teachers. It was all very laid back though, with few formal lessons and more the air of a commune than a school. ILEA eventually took it over in the early nineteen eighties.

I think that thee are the sort of schemes which some of the home educators who have expressed interest in the new schools initiative have in mind. they think that they might be able to set up small schools of this sort and then be paid by the government to teach their own children. It's not going to happen, of course. Times are very different now to what they were forty years ago. I notice that the second stage of the four stage process in setting up one of the new Free Schools, entails sending in a rough plan of the thing. The DfE will then decide whether to invite you to submit more detailed plans. I rather suspect that some groups of home educators might get as far as sending in this first plan; I would be remarkably surprised if any are invited to take the matter further. The idea here is for proper new schools in proper premises, run by proper teachers using a proper curriculum so that the pupils will end up taking proper examinations. Call me Mr Negative, but I just can't see any home educators being either willing or able to set up anything of that sort. I think that the Department for education might be expecting something a good deal more detailed than an Ed Phil and a few vague hopes for the future.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Grounds for optimism and despair

Firstly, the grounds for despair. The Department for Education has decided to 'clarify' the position for home educated children being offered places at a Further Education College. As readers will know, some parents are currently having to pay for their fourteen and fifteen year old children to attend colleges which are free to any sixteen to nineteen year old and also to younger school pupils who have been sent there. This is of course horribly unfair and quite a few parents are keen to get free college places for their children. The local authority position had always been that there is no funding available for this from central government and that home educating parents assume complete financial responsibility for their children's education. This situation has now changed........or has it? You decide. This is what the DfE said yesterday;

The current financial responsibility for home educated children has not changed, namely, that parents who choose to electively home educate their children assume financial responsibility for their education. This is set out in paragraphs 5.1 – 5.2 of Elective home education: Guidelines for local authorities.

However, funding may be available where a local authority provides significant financial support for a home educated young person in two specific circumstances. These are, first, where the young person has SEN and secondly where the young person attends further education college to take GCSEs or other courses. It is for the LA to decide whether to fund the provision: they have the discretion to do so but are not required to do so.

In other words, the local authority can do it, but they don't have to. I have no idea at all if this is a real change of policy or simply describes an existing state of affairs of which most home educating parents were unaware! The bottom line seems to be that letting a home educated child into a college will involve the LA in a lot of paperwork and irritating delays while they haggle with Westminster to try and reclaim the money. I have a suspicion that few will feel that they wish to put themselves out like this. Many home educators are mad troublemakers whom the local authority will be sick of anyway. Why would they wish to do any favours to these people? Before there are howls of anger, I was actually thinking about some of my own actions even now that my daughter is at college. When my daughter asked if it would be OK for me to collect her A level results because she would be away at a summer school in Cambridge when they were released, the administrator told her it would be fine. Simone then asked if I would need to bring ID, to which the woman replied wearily, 'I think we all know your father, Simone'. Says it all, really!

The grounds for optimism are of a negative nature, ie something which will not happen. There is fury about the Ofsted report, but at a time when savage cuts are being made all over the place, not least in education, will the government really want to set up a new inspectorate funded by the taxpayer in order to track down and register a few thousand home educators? It is unlikely, particularly since these are the sort of people who will be making challenges through the courts, seeking judicial review and so on. It would end up costing a fortune and even then there would be still be many unknown families. It might just have worked if ContactPoint were operating, but as things stand I simply can't see how it could be done. Rest easy then, all of you who are 'under the radar', at least for now.

I hope that I am not a fussy pedant, but am I alone in noticing that the DfE manage the astonishing feat of getting in a split infinitive and tautology in a mere five words?

choose to electively home educate

Have you ever seen an uglier construction? obviously, somebody who is electing to do something is choosing it, so one of those word is not needed. The split infinitive also makes the phrase sound horrible. Whta would be wrong with; choose to home educate? And so with such illiterate monkeys framing their press releases, the Department for Children are hoping to advertise the advantages of the education which they can offer in maintained schools......

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Hitler banned home eduction

One of the great pleasures when following debates about home education on the Internet lies in observing the astonishing frequency with which Godwin's Law is violated. Godwin's Law is of course a piece of Internet lore which holds that the longer an exchange on any subject at all continues, the more likely is it that somebody will try to use Hitler and the Nazis to support an argument. It is a tradition on some lists that the first person to resort to this tactic has lost the debate and the thread ends. This convention is not, for obvious reasons, adhered to on home education lists!

It is of course the one 'fact' that all home educators seem to know; Hitler banned home education. Is it true? Not really, but the myth itself has now gained a life of its own and there is probably very little point in trying to explain what really happened to people. Never the less, as much for my own satisfaction as anything else, here are the facts.

Until the middle of the Nineteenth Century, what we today call Germany was a collection of small kingdoms and states; Mecklenburg, Bavaria, Hesse and Saxony, to name a few. The largest and most influential of these kingdoms was Prussia, which included Westphalia, Pomerania and Silesia. Bismarck was a Prussian statesman from Brandenburg who unified many of these little states into one country called Germany. His aim was that the other German states would be submerged into Prussia, not that Prussia would be submerged in Germany. A consequence of this is that a lot of what we call typically German now is actually typically Prussian, rather than German per se.

Prussia had adopted compulsory education, or to be more exact compulsory schooling, under Frederick II in 1763, well over a hundred years before Hitler was born. By the time that Britain passed the Forster Act providing for compulsory education, Prussia had long been a byword for its compulsory schools. The Newcastle report on education in 1861 made reference to the Prussian system and thought it a bad idea.

Gradually, in keeping with Bismarck's ideas of forming the new nation of Germany in Prussia's image, the laws of the other little states were over ruled by Prussian laws. By 1900, the process was more or less complete and the whole of Germany followed the Prussian system in practically everything, including compulsory schooling. The way some people talk about the Nazis introducing the law on compulsory schooling, one would think that Weimar was a thriving hotbed of autonomous home education. It was of course nothing of the sort. Schooling was compulsory everywhere, because that was how it had been in Prussia for over a hundred years.

The Nazi law was not a new thing at all. It was part of this same process of unifying the entire country under one, predominantly Prussian, system which had been started by Bismarck in 1866. It really just reminded everybody of what the situation actually was; that children had to attend school. This is one of the things that you have to do from time to time, especially in federal republics or those made up of many formerly independent states. Otherwise you will find that some town will end up a few years down the line arguing that they have had such and such a tradition since the Middle Ages and they do not agree with the central government's new law on the subject. Compulsory school attendance certainly wasn't something dreamed up by the Nazis. It is of course perfectly true that the Germans today stick rigidly to the letter of this law, in a way that we do not in this country. We must remember that for the first twenty years or so after the passage of the 1944 Education Act, absolutely everybody in this country thought that this law too made schooling compulsory. The fact that it did not says more about our judiciary than it does about the law itself.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Home education in Birmingham

I seriously doubt if anybody will be the least bit surprised to learn that staff at Birmingham council are once again in a muddle. When Khyra Ishaq died, a little over two years ago, it was soon obvious that the procedures used in Birmingham had failed. Whether it was the school to blame, or Social Services, or the department dealing with electively home educated children; someone had screwed up. I think all of us would probably agree on that point. Now between the death of the child and the full facts coming to light, there was a period of well over eighteen months. Plenty of time, one might have though, to get to grips with things and sort out what had gone wrong. Needless to say, being Birmingham, this is not what happened. Instead, the matter was more or less shoved out of sight and mind until the verdict was delivered in the trial.

I suppose that we have all done things like this; put off dealing with something that we know at the back of our mind we are going to have to tackle sooner of later. Of course for most of us, it might just be a letter from the bank that we are sticking at the back of a drawer and trying to forget about. It is unlikely to be a dead child. Even when everything came to light earlier this year, Birmingham still delayed taking any action. This had less to do with 'best practice' and more to do with the fact that some people there thought that it might be possible to blame the whole business on their supposed lack of legal powers to regulate and monitor home education. It was thought that if they could only hold off looking too closely at things until the Children, Schools and Families Bill was passed, then they could blame all that had happened to Khyra Ishaq on the lack of sufficient legal powers previously. Then a line could be drawn under the incident and a fresh start made. Of course, in the event , this did not happen.

As a result, since early May the local authority officers in Birmingham whose job it is to deal with elective home education have been racing around frantically trying to get a look at every child in their area who is supposedly being educated at home. I need hardly add that this is not in the least anything to do with the education that these children may or may not be receiving. They have been told that they must physically set eyes upon each and every one of those kids and make sure that they are still alive and well. True, they are guying these frantic efforts up as a chance to hear little Jimmy reading and look at some of his work, but what they are really wanting to know is if little Jimmy is starving to death in the attic.

The problem is, that a lot of people avoid giving their telephone numbers to the EHE department. Many of those who do, have no landline and change their mobiles every week or so. Letters remain unanswered. Many people move frequently as well. Without going into the ins and outs of it too deeply, most of those who deregister their children from school there, are not owner occupiers living stable lives in nice suburbs, as is often the case with home educators in some other parts of the country. Many of these people are on the move regularly and hard to find. The only way to see them in many cases is to go and look for them physically.

At this very moment therefore, two exceedingly harassed and tired men are driving round Birmingham, looking for every home educated child with whom their department has dealt in the last couple of years. Where they have moved, these guys are talking to neighbours and when they actually find somebody who is still living where they expected, they are trying to bounce them into letting them in there and then to have a look at the kid. You might think that since this is essentially a series of lightning 'safe and well' checks, Social Services might lend a hand. They have their own problems though and do not feel inclined to offer staff to help out with this mammoth undertaking. The men actually doing the checks are getting confused sometimes and not liasing properly, with the result that some parents have been offered visits by two different people turning up on their doorstep within days of each other.

I have a suspicion that we are going to be seeing quite a few complaints over the next few months from irate home educating parents in Birmingham who find themselves being 'offered' visits in some cases less than six months after they last had one. Never the less, every single child on their books as being home educated must now receive a visit. They are not taking any chances of another horrible surprise like the Ishaq case. While he is listening to Aziz read, the local authority officer will be casting glances at around, trying to look for anything wrong in the house. he will also be examining the child for signs of abuse or starvation. It will be interesting to see if they succeed in seeing all the kids or whether some parents, backed up by home education charities, will dig in their heels and refuse.

Ex home educators

It has more than once been suggested by people commenting here that it really is time that I got myself a life, or even a hobby, and stopped being so concerned with home education. After all, my daughter is at college now, why don't I just forget about home education and get on with other things? It has to be said that even my own daughter feels that way! I mentioned this to a friend of mine who is not a home educating parent, but has a professional interest in elective home education. She laughingly reminded me that quite a few of the well known names whom one sees writing letters to newspapers, sending in submissions to select committees and also posting every day on various Internet lists, are in precisely the same position; that is to say they are not actually home educators at all.

We spent a while compiling a list of those household names in the British HE scene who are either not home educators or have only taken it up in the last year or so. To my surprise, it came to well over half the names! I thought I would look at one or two of them and see how obsessive my own interest in the subject of home education seems in comparison. Knowing of course the almost pathological desire of these people to conceal their identity, I shall of course respect their privacy by using only initials.

Take AE for instance, who lives in the West Country. AE posts on the comments sections of the online editions of newspapers using the name tinpanali, although even her closest friends concede that a more apposite sobriquet might perhaps be 'annoyingloudmouthedali'. AE has not been a home educator for over two years now, since she bunged her kids back into school to start an ill starred business venture. She tells friends that the whole HE thing was getting a bit much anyway. She still hangs out on many of the Internet home education lists, despite the fact that one of the largest states clearly, 'Membership is open to families who are home educating or are interested in home educating their children in the UK.' You would think really that since she is neither home educating her children nor has any interest in doing so in the future, she would have dropped out of this particular list.

AE spends a good deal of her time fooling around with home education related issues. I have myself been accused of not being able to let go and give up the whole HE thing, but I have not a patch on AE. Last September, eighteen months after she had stopped being a home educator, AE was writing to Calderdale local authority up in Yorkshire, making a Freedom of Information request about home education there! Reassuring really, to know that in comparison with characters like that, my own interest in the subject seems quite low key.

Many of the most vociferous advocates of home eduction are those who have been quite content to send their children to school and then undergone a 'Road to Damascus' style conversion. From that moment on, they talk of schools as though they were the Devil's work and are as fanatical in the faith as new converts to some cult. Look at JG, who lives in the charming village of Eardisley at the other end of the country from AE. This pleasingly Rubenesque mother only stopped sending her son to the local C of E primary school in the summer of 2008. Within a matter of weeks, she had joined up to a raft of HE lists and was angrily denouncing those who did not share her own view of education. Within six months, she was known across the Internet as a dedicated home educator. One might have though she had been at it for years!

There is a slight puzzle about JG and her home educating methods. On the lists, she gives the impression of being almost an autonomous educator. In a recent post she talks of the educational value of crossword puzzles for her son as a way for him to acquire general knowledge, spelling, comprehension and so on. All very autonomous and designed to strike a chord in the hearts of other home educators there. However in a recent interview with a journalist, she claimed that her son was 'looking to do between six and eight GCSEs at the end of the year'. This suggests that she is a hothouser, delivering an extremely disciplined and highly structured education to M, her son. Even I would have hesitated to get my daughter to take the eight GCSEs which she sat at the age of twelve or thirteen. Which is it, JG, hothouser or autonomous?

I could go through a few more well known 'home educators', but I think these two give the flavour. Home education is an addictive process. Once one becomes involved with it, it is very hard to give up. I can quite understand why so many parents remain on the lists and indeed are still very active in the business, long after their children have ceased to be home educated. I can also understand the mad enthusiasm of people like JG who have only recently discovered the excitement of home education. I too was very gung ho about it ten or twelve years ago. It is to be hoped that the next time readers feel like asking me why I am still hanging round the HE scene, they will perhaps realise that I am not alone in this and that home education, like heroin and sudoku, can be a very hard habit to drop.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Better late than early

Many home educating parents in this country seem to be very familiar with John Holt and his books; Teach Your Own seems to be a particular favourite. In the same year that this was first published, 1981, another book on home education came out in the USA. It was called Home Grown Kids and it was written by Raymond and Dorothy Moore. The Moores had written a book a few years earlier than that, called Better Late then Early. During the nineteen sixties, they had been conducting research into the early childhood education movement. While doing so, they discovered a huge amount of evidence from all around the world which suggested that taking very young children from their parents and having them looked after all day by strangers was a bad thing for them, both emotionally and educationally. It's important to note that their conclusions in this were led by the evidence; they did not begin from the position that nurseries and kindergarten were a bad thing, quite the opposite. Older readers will perhaps recollect that during the late sixties and early seventies, the idea of nurseries where children could start very young was seen as a great liberation for women. They could have children and not be bound to the home as housewives.

The Moores found a direct and clear correlation between the age at which formal schooling began and a raft of later difficulties. These ranged from emotional difficulties and juvenile delinquency to various health problems. Interestingly, they also found that early schooling harmed socialisation. A lot of this of course ties in with what people in this country like John Bowlby were finding about maternal deprivation and the ill effects upon a child of being raised in the absence of a one to one loving caregiver.

I find all this interesting with reference to home education in this country. As far as we know, most home educated children in this country seem to spend at least some time in a maintained school. True, some pretty large research projects carried out here have shown a fairly even split between those who have never been to school and those who have been deregistered, but these must be treated with caution. Both Rothermel's studies in 1997/1998 and a large survey conducted by Education Otherwise among its member a few years later only had a 20% response rate. It is upon these that the notion that half of home educated children have never attended school is based.

When you talk to home educators, it certainly seems more common to encounter those whose children have attended school for a while. What is interesting is that it is almost always that they have attended primary school. One seldom hears of children who have been home educated at primary level and then gone to secondary school. It does happen of course, but it is very much the exception.

An awful lot of research now suggests that it is far better for a child to spend those early years with her parents, rather than in an institutional setting. The home is also a much better place to learn how to read and write and for the acquisition of other vital early skills. Any parent can teach a child to read and write in a relaxed and informal way; it is one of the great pleasures of infancy for both parents and child. Teaching Chemistry on the other hand to GCSE level when a child is fourteen or fifteen is, by contrast, a far harder and less enjoyable enterprise!

It strikes me that if parents are going to send their children to school for a few years and also educate them at home for a spell, then the most sensible way of going about the business would be as Dorothy and Raymond Moore suggested in Better Late than Early; teaching them at home until the age of eleven or twelve and only then sending them off to formal schooling. It is curious that parents in this country seem to opt for the opposite approach, sending them to school when young and then educating them at home when they are teenagers. I suppose that this could be due to the fact that few parents in this country seem to make a definite decision to home educate from the beginning and that many of them take this course of action as a response to problems. In other words, the whole thing is not planned in advance.

I would certainly recommend every parent to teach their own children from birth until around eleven. Secondary education is another matter entirely. It can be done effectively, but it is very definitely a full time job which does not suit everybody. Whereas teaching small children is less a full time task than a continuous delight. I know which I enjoyed most!

A meeting with Ed Balls

Knowing the great affection felt for Ed Balls and the warm regard in which he is held by many home educating parents, I thought that this picture of my daughter and him might be of interest. I might perhaps have mentioned in the past that my daughter recently joined the Labour Party. (The Labour Party! My feelings on hearing of this development must have been broadly similar to those of a parent who learns that his teenage daughter is pregnant or on drugs. Only worse.) She spent a good deal of time talking to him and asking him the sort of impertinent questions which only a sixteen year old would have the cheek to raise, for instance about the precise nature of the electoral system used to select the next Labour leader, his plans for the future and so on.

I asked her out of curiosity what he had had to say for himself with regard to home education and his famous Children, Schools and Families Bill. To my surprise, she had not even thought to raise this particular topic with him. On reflection this should not have come as a surprise at all. I don't think that my daughter has ever really classified herself as being 'home educated'. When she was small and some fool in shops or other public places asked her the inevitable, fatuous question, 'No school today?', she would say simply, 'I don't go to school'. As she grew older she would describe herself as being home educated, but this was only once she had learned from others that this was a handy pigeon-hole which enabled them to classify her. I don't think I used the expression myself.

Today, she meets a huge variety of different people. Many of those people are concerned with education and so on. I often ask her afterwards, 'Did you tell so and so that you had been home educated?' She seldom has done, because it is to her an irrelevance. It has never been a defining feature of her life in the way that politics, religion and tastes in literature and theatre are. It is simply that she did not go to school. She has never displayed the least interest in the theory or ideology of home education and wanted no part of the book which I wrote. Not because she had not enjoyed being taught at home or thought it a bad experience, but rather because that was then and this is now. Who cares what her experiences of early education were? It's what she is doing now that matters to her.

Now I don't know how typical this is of other teenagers who have been educated at home. I have met a few of these and they usually let one know fairly early on that they were home educated. It seems to be a very definite part of their identity, of how they see themselves. I was wondering whether this might be because to many parents and consequently also to their children, home education is far more than simply how their children learn. It is a social grouping, hobby, political leaning and quasi-religion all rolled up into one. It provides them with electronic pen pals, who often act as a substitute for the social life which other parents have at the school gates. It allows them to feel passionately about a political issue, rather like those who used to campaign against the fluoridation of our drinking water. It gives them figures upon whom they and their group can focus their hatred and contempt. (Hmmm, my neck grew strangely warm as I typed that. Is it me or is it warm in here?) In short, it gives them an aim and purpose in life.
It is, as I say, a great deal more than just another educational method.

I suppose that we all like to belong to various groups, whether they are churches or football teams, political parties or book clubs. Home education is another of these groups, a huddling place frequently, but not of course invariably, for the lonely and disaffected. It would be interesting to study the home education movement in this country from an anthropological perspective. Its need for bogy men such as the terrifying figure of the local authority officer, always eager to snatch their children away from them; its demons and ghouls such as Graham Badman. The sense of persecution and hostility which many members feel so keenly. The delicious feeling of being a true believer, part of a beleaguered band of souls, fighting for a noble cause against the world of the orthodox and hidebound. A bit like being an early Christian, I suppose.

Unfortunately, my daughter was never really part of this world and so she did not have the chance to develop such visceral emotions on the subject of home education as those which I have observed in other families. I have a suspicion that when she goes to university she is unlikely ever to mention that she was home educated, unless the subject is specifically raised by somebody else.

Friday, 11 June 2010

The third spike

There have always been two very popular times to deregister children from school in order to educate them at home. The first of these is in Reception or Year 1, soon after the child has started formal education in fact. The other favoured time is before or shortly after the transition from primary to secondary school. Of course, children are taken out of school at any and every age, but these two periods in the child's school career are the commonest ages at which to make the decision. Local authority officers have in recent years been talking of a third 'spike', round about the age of fourteen, just when the child is, or should be, settling down to serious study for examinations. This was mentioned by the local authority officers who had an informal meeting with members of the Children, Schools and Families select committee on November 4th last year.

Now it is pretty easy to understand why Reception and Year 1 would be common ages for deregistration. The parents have sent the kid to school, given enough time to see if the enterprise is working out and when it is plain that it is not, they deregister her and she becomes home educated. Similarly, it is not hard to see the significance of the change from primary to secondary school. Many children find this a stressful and somewhat unpleasant experience and it is not hard to imagine that a sensitive child might find it unbearable. Some parents, anticipating this, just don't send their children to secondary school. This is also a time when many primary school who have just moved to Year 7 first make the acquaintance of that delightful old English tradition of bullying. So in both of these 'spikes' on the graph, one can see the reason behind them without too much difficulty.

Looking now at the third 'spike', matters are a little more puzzling. These children have usually been at school for almost a decade. Presumably, their parents are not that mad keen on the idea of home education or they would have been teaching them themselves before this age. School phobia usually manifests itself a little earlier than fourteen or fifteen. It is rare for children suddenly to develop special educational need at this late stage and there is no particular reason why bullying should suddenly become a problem. And yet there it is; an increasing number of parents are pulling their kids out of school at thirteen, fourteen and fifteen. What can be behind this?

If we assume that the motive is educational, then we are faced with a real poser. These children are now gearing up for their GCSEs; the next couple of years are pretty crucial for them. Their parents have not wanted to home educate for the last decade and yet suddenly, they are taken out of school. What educational benefit could the child be receiving from this? It's a tricky question.

If, on the other hand, we forget about education completely and just look at the dynamics in a typical family containing a child of around that age, the thing becomes a good deal easier to understand. Now I am sure that many parents are genuinely concerned about the stress that studying for ten or twelve GCSEs might cause their children. It is quite possible that their concern for an overworked child might cause them to take drastic action. There is of course also the natural friction between parents and teenagers about homework and school. This often reaches a crescendo a year or two after puberty, right at the time in fact that these deregistrations are actually taking place. It must sometimes appear to parents that if school were removed from the equation, family life would become a lot easier and there would be less conflict between them and their children. No more insisting on early bedtimes, no more shouting at the child to get her up in the mornings, no more fights over homework, arguments about truancy; the advantages are clear, at least in the short term. It is impossible to state with certainty what motivates parents to deregister their children from school at this age, but it seems likely that self interest and the avoidance of trouble with their children often play at least some part in the decision.

Of course, this may not be the whole story. There may very well be perfectly sound educational reasons for leaving a child in school for ten years or so and then pulling her out before she sits her final exams. It's hard to think of the educational benefit here, but it may exist. It is curious though that when parents who have taken this extremely serious step post on the lists, they seldom seem to be doing so because they wish to share the academic advantages of this course of action with other home educators. Almost invariably, their main concern appears to be avoiding trouble with their local authority. This is not conclusive, but it is certainly suggestive.

Quite a few local authority officers are now worried about this trend and I would be grateful to hear from anybody who can explain the educational rationale behind such a move as this. Clearly, at least some of these parents must feel that this sort of thing will help their child's education, but it is hard to see how.