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.