Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Home educators 'just don't get it'

The above is a quotation from my daughter. As I have perhaps mentioned, she is very involved with the Ed Balls leadership campaign, spending a lot of time at the headquarters in Victoria and also travelling to various events. At least it gives her a chance to meet a bunch of Z list politicos like Oona King and so on. I said recently that nobody with whom she knocks about in the Labour Party knew she was home educated, but that changed the other night. Somebody in the office was talking about the letter of support which a home educated child had had published in the Guardian and my daughter admitted that she was in fact the Santaevita who had written it. What was interesting was that she said everybody seemed very enthusiastic about the idea of home education, but that there was general agreement that it should be monitored. This is the same consensus which has in the past emerged from her discussions with students and lecturers at college. Absolutely nobody is against home education, but everybody wants an eye kept on it to make sure that the children are actually being educated. It was when telling me about this, that Simone said that home educators, 'just don't get it'. I think that she might be right.

I don't want to start a discussion about whether regular monitoring is or is not a good idea. I want rather to consider the extent to which home educators might be a little out of touch with popular opinion on this subject. Although some people have been a little sniffy about my educating my own child, nobody ever seems to have doubted that the thing could be done. I have an idea that this might be a pretty general thing, although I am quite prepared to hear that some parents have encountered hostility and opposition. Once I have started talking to people though about home education, everybody has been shocked and amazed to discover that there are no checks or regular inspections of home education. The fact that the whole system for monitoring is completely voluntary and if you don't feel like taking part you can simply refuse, strikes everybody as quite mad. I am not talking about teachers or social workers here, but shop assistants, police officers, passers by and parents of school children.

Now I don't know if this is the experience of others. Certainly my daughter has found the same thing, particularly over the last year or so. Everybody is quite accepting of home education; but nobody thinks it wise that there is no system for monitoring and inspection. This is in stark contrast to home educating parents themselves, an awful lot of whom have their faces set like flint against any sort of compulsory interference in what they are doing with their children.

It is always a bit tricky when a group of individuals pursuing some outlandish hobby or lifestyle find themselves coming into conflict with what the rest of the world think. This is the case whether the lifestyle is nudism, pistol shooting, fox hunting, smoking crack or home educating. Once you are a member of the group, you start to see the group's view of the world and begin to disregard what normal people think of your chosen activity. If you spend long enough associating with other members of the group, then the lifestyle ceases to seem outlandish and becomes quite the norm for you and those with whom you talk. After a while, you can't even see anything strange about killing foxes or walking about without any trousers; it's just what you and your friends do! Anybody who objects to what you are doing must be a fascist/communist/statist.

In a way, I can see how this works. By the time my daughter was ten or twelve, not sending her to school was such an entrenched part of our life that it seemed quite normal. It wasn't, of course. Let's face it, not sending your kid to school like everybody else is a bloody peculiar way to carry on! In other words, I was becoming something of an outsider from normal, everyday society, but was not always aware of it. Walking round town on a school day with a child in tow while everybody else's kids are at school, makes one automatically a bit of an oddity. Now choosing to do this, turn myself into a minority in effect, is my own affair, I answer to nobody for my choices and if others don't like it then they can go to the Devil. I have sometimes thought though that it was a bit much to make my child a member of a minority in this way. She, after all, did not have any say in the matter; it was just how she grew up.

Because of how I earn my living, working with families with children at school, I was always able to see both sides here. On the one hand the feeling that my chosen way of life was quite normal and on the other the awareness that I was pursuing a pretty weird course of action. I have an idea that some home educating parents might not be able to do this. I see this when I am commenting in the online versions of some newspapers which have run a piece on home education. One often gets ordinary people saying a few words and then some really aggressive home educator will come on and tell her to keep quiet about things she knows nothing about. This is frequently the signal for a bunch of home educators to swamp the comments with pro HE stuff. The only thing is, a lot of these comments sound barking mad to the average citizen. The ordinary people stop posting and then the home educating parents are left to make more and more extravagant comments. I know for a fact that some people have said that all the home educators on in these places seem really weird. It is not a good advertisement for the stability and sound mental health of home educators!

Perhaps it would be well for home educating parents to remember that they have in fact chosen to pursue a lifestyle that most people see as odd. Nothing wrong with that of course, it's a free country. However, when practically everybody around you thinks that you are doing something strange which involves children, then you have to be prepared for many people to speak out on behalf of the children concerned and to suggest that somebody should keep watch upon their interests. Fighting tooth and nail to avoid allowing anybody into one's home does look a little fishy to many people. After all, most of us have all sorts of people in and out of our homes all the time. I can quite see why this particular aspect of the home education scene would raise a few eyebrows, as indeed it does. I am talking now of how it looks to others; I myself understand very well why parents would be reluctant to allow local authority officers into their homes. I simply have the feeling that for over 99% of the population this aspect of HE , the perceived secrecy, is something which seems like a bit of a warning flag. This is worth bearing in mind.

Monday, 30 August 2010

On Liberty

Time to celebrate the life and opinions of one of the greatest home educated people ever, a man whose name became a byword for freedom and the right to do pretty much as you please. Step forward John Stuart Mill, perhaps the greatest intellect of the Victorian Age. His father was a proponent of what we would now call Hothousing, where a child's intellectual development is deliberately stimulated and accelerated with the intention or at least hope, of producing a genius. James Mill accordingly taught his son at home from infancy. By three, the child was learning Greek. By eight, he had read Xenophon in the original and was learning Latin. He was carefully shielded from the influence of other children, meeting in general only adults. His academic achievements throughout adolescence were outstanding until, at the age of twenty, he suffered a nervous breakdown. Some autonomous types are probably shaking their heads at this point, muttering that this is the sort of thing one would expect with such a structured education!

Mill's most famous book is On Liberty. In it, he sets out the framework for the liberal society where anybody should be able to do what they please, as long as it does not hurt others. This was radical stuff in Victorian Britain. He argued that sexual conduct was a private matter and that if a man wished to harm himself, that was his own business. These principles have become embedded in our modern world to such an extent that we tend to take them for granted.

I have in some quarters a reputation for being the sort of person who wants everybody to be compelled to educate their children just as I did my own child. Some even seem to think that I am a fan of the intrusive state, a state which meddles in the private lives of its citizens and wishes to involve itself in private affairs such as childrearing. This is sheer nonsense. Let us look at what John Stuart Mill had to say about home education in On Liberty. He must surely be the last person one would accuse of having a statist mindset.

'A state education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another:'

'An education established and controlled by the state should only exist, if it exist at all, as one among many competing experiments'

I am sure that all home educating parents will cheer such opinions. Remarkable that they were written a hundred and fifty years ago. Mill was a great supporter of home education. It had worked for him and he thought that it could work for most people. He was not at all a fan of schools, especially state schools. He believed that the law should grant to every child the right to an education, but that, 'it might leave to parents to obtain the education where and how they pleased'. Mill believed that the legal situation with children and the idea of freedom in relation to children was misunderstood. He said;

'It is in the case of children that misapplied notions of liberty are a real obstacle to the fulfilment by the state of its duties.'

He believed that the law should not only allow parents to educate their children, but that they should be compelled to do so, because;

'to bring a child into existence without a fair prospect of being able, not only to provide food for its body, but instruction and training for its mind is a moral crime, both against the unfortunate offspring and against society; and that if the parent does not fulfil this obligation, the State ought to see it fulfilled'

In other words; he was all in favour of home education, did not love the idea of state schools and thought that all parents should be able to educate their children as they wished. So far, so good and I doubt that anybody will disagree with his views on the matter, at least among home educators. He was however concerned that some parents might shirk their duties and ignore the child's right to an education. How could one ensure that this did not happen?

'The instrument for enforcing the law could be no other than public examinations, extending to all children and starting at an early age. An age might be fixed at which every child must be examined, to ascertain if he (or she) is able to read. If a child proves unable, the father might be subjected to a moderate fine and the child put to school'

He goes on to outline a system for checking regularly that the child is receiving an education; his idea being that the freedom of the parents had to give way in this matter to the rights of the child. This is such a lucid exposition of the theoretical underpinning for the notion of regular monitoring of home education, that I urge all readers to track down a copy of On Liberty and read it, or at least the bits about education. they are to be found at the end in the section called Applications.

That one of the most famous of all home educated men, who was also the architect of many of the freedoms which we today enjoy, should take such a position is heartening in the extreme. I cannot do better than recommend that any parent who sees any sort of contradiction between the rights and freedom of citizens and the duty of the State to monitor home education regularly, should read this very useful book.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Non-standard UK qualifications

Last week I was accused of being fixated on GCSEs and A levels and not acknowledging that there were other, equally useful qualifications to be had by the home educated child. This is a very fair point and so I thought it might be worth looking a little at the alternatives to the standard qualifications in this country and seeing if any of them might be preferable for those being educated at home.

The first point to consider is this. The higher education system and also most employers are geared to the GCSE and A level. This may be regrettable, but it is indisputably true. Further Education colleges ask for five GCSEs if a teenager wishes to study for A levels, universities require A levels to study for a degree, training courses for plumbers ask for four GCSEs, even a shopkeeper or garage owner may well insist on GCSEs in English and mathematics. This means that anybody hoping that alternative qualifications will do the trick for their children is immediately putting those children into the position of being guinea pigs for a risky venture. It is not only home educating parents who do this. Schools and colleges are also conducting experiments of this kind with the International Baccalaureate and the New Diploma. Here is an analogy. Hikers usually ascend mountains wearing stout boots and thick socks. Imagine that somebody insists on trying to climb up while barefoot or wearing only flip-flops. It might be possible, but for every person who succeeds, there will be many who cannot manage it. This is what it is like for those who want their children to take non-standard qualifications. A few may do well, but it is hard to see the motive for avoiding the conventional path in the first place, except through sheer perversity!

Let us look at the alternatives to GCSEs and A levels, not just from the perspective of home educators, but also schools and colleges. One famous alternative to A levels is the International Baccalaureate. Some schools have adopted this in recent years because the standards are set quite independently of any government and are far more rigorous than A levels. There are two problems with the IB. Yesterday I mentioned the London Borough of Enfield, a local authority with which I have had quite a few dealings. One of the schools there, Highlands, decided a few years ago to be pioneers and scrap A levels entirely in favour of the International Baccalaureate. Big mistake. Because unlike A levels, it is perfectly possible to fail the IB entirely. In 2008, the sixth formers leaving Highlands found this to their cost. Almost half of them, 46% in fact, failed the IB. This meant that they had nothing at all to show for their two years further education. I cannot tell you how furious the parents were! Highlands dropped the IB and went back to A levels. Other schools found the same thing. Another problem with the IB is that universities are, as I said above, geared to GCSEs and A levels. They will accept the IB, but most are not as happy with it as they are with A levels, despite what they say on their websites.

A similar experiment has been carried out with the new Diploma. One local FE college decided to encourage many of those who wished to study for A levels to do instead a diploma, claiming that it would be worth three or four A levels and that universities would accept it as well as A levels. This is quite untrue and those foolish enough to be used as guinea pigs for this scheme are now finding that they are going to have great difficulties with getting into the universities of their choice.

Some parents have got their children to sit the National Tests in Adult Literacy and Numeracy (ALAN). In theory, Level 2 is equivalent to GCSEs in English language and mathematics, grades A*-C. This may in theory be so, but you will have trouble persuading a college to accept these as being equal to GCSEs if you are trying to access an A level course. A serious difficulty with these qualifications is that they look the sort of thing which an illiterate person might have taken after going to remedial classes. This is not always the impression which one hopes to give to a prospective employer. Combined with a blank space in the box for secondary school, the whole tone of an application form for a job might be seriously jeopardised by such a qualification.

We recently saw a teenager from Wiltshire get into Exeter University on the strength of Open University credits alone, without any GCSEs or A levels. This has been done before, although it is not common. Once again, we come up against the problem of a system which is geared to GCSEs and A levels, together with certain recognised foreign qualifications. One has to ask one's self, what is the advantage here for the child? Gaining 190 points at the OU is very hard work, but if you are going to embark on such structured academic work, why choose a scheme so radically different from that with which universities are familiar? It is in any case unlikely that this is, or will become, a common way of entering university.

I can see, although do not think it wise, that some parents wish to allow their children to make free choices about the type and degree of education which they have. For those who are going to embark upon structured study though, it is the responsibility of the parents to research the options carefully and consider all the implications. What I find utterly baffling is that any family would deliberately set out to obtain qualifications which would make it harder for their children to get jobs or university places than would be the case if they stuck to the same things as everybody else, i.e. GCSEs and A levels. The only possibility that I can see is that these are people who like to do things the hard way, who enjoy a struggle. That is a perfectly good decision for an adult to make about her own life. After all, if I wish to make things difficult for myself, that is my affair. I could start walking everywhere backwards if I liked or with my eyes closed. However, the case is altered somewhat when the future life of a child is concerned. In such a case, to set out upon a course of action which will make it harder for the child to get on in life than is the case for a schooled child, seems to me foolish and irresponsible. I was disgusted with Highlands school when they gambled with the future of their sixth form pupils and I was horrified to see our local college trying to get loads of bright kids to sign up to the New Diploma. I feel exactly the same way about parents who ignore the evidence and pursue an unconventional route for their teenage children. Why would you take such a gamble?

Saturday, 28 August 2010

De-registering children to avoid trouble

Most parents who de-register their children from school do so in order to provide an education for them at home. It might be a strange or insufficient education, but the intention is definitely to give the children some sort of education. However, for at least the last ten years or so, it has been noticed that some are not choosing this option for the positive reason of home education, but rather to avoid ending up in the courts. When Ofsted surveyed fifteen local authorities last year, they spoke to a hundred and twenty home educating parents and received written submissions from many more. Local authority officers were also spoken to. In every single one of those fifteen local authorities, it was accepted by all parties that some parents had de-registered their children from school in order to avoid prosecution for their children's truancy. The Children, Schools and Families select committee found the same thing when they spoke to local authority officers last year. Not only were some parents hitting upon this scheme themselves to evade trouble, but schools sometimes collude with them in doing so. Ofsted found a couple of parents who had been advised by the Headmasters at their children's schools to de-register their children in order to avoid the stigma of permanent exclusion.

Cases like this typically occur when a child is missing a lot of school and the EWOs are not making any headway, or when there is so much trouble with the kid at school that it looks as though permanent exclusion is going to be the likely outcome. Now exclusions and prosecutions for truancy are pretty lousy for a school's reputation. Too many of either and people start poking around and asking awkward questions of the Head. They are also bad news for parents and pupils. The courts are quite ready these days to send a parent to prison if their child's persistent truancy looks as though it is being condoned. Permanent exclusions mean that the kid will have a very bad record in the future. It is therefore in the interests of school, parent and child if another solution can be found. The most popular solution was pioneered by Firfield School in Newcastle in the late 1990s. They simply typed out letters supposedly from the parents of regular truants, letters which announced that the parents were going to home educate their children, and then called the parents into the office. After putting the frighteners on them with threats of prosecution, they then produced the letters and got the parents to sign them. Problem solved! Unfortunately, the large number of disaffected youths hanging round the streets during weekdays was noticed and the whole scam was exposed.

Of course this sort of thing still happens in every local authority area, although some are worse than others. When a child is de-registered from a school to be educated at home, the school is supposed to notify their local authority. Some schools fail to do this. This is sometimes because they have been encouraging parents to de-register their children to 'home educate' and they are nervous that if the LA sees too many children being off-rolled in this way, that questions might be asked. So they simply don't tell the local authority. Some local authorities too are not over anxious to hear about any more home educated children. When we received a monitoring visit from Essex some years ago, I mentioned that I had been having dealings with another home educating family in the area. Quick as a flash, the adviser told me that she did not want to know of any family who was not already registered with Essex. It would just have meant more work for them and the HE department was already overstretched.

One of the worst local authorities for not wanting to find out about home educated children in their area is the London Borough of Enfield. I know of half a dozen children who have been de-registered in the borough, all of whom sent letters to their child's school. Not one was subsequently contacted by the LA. Since we are talking of four different schools, this means that it is probably a semi-official policy of the council not to take on new home educated children to inspect if this can be avoided. The inspections which they do undertake tend to be, shall we say, a little cursory. From time to time, Enfield get their fingers burned in this way. An unfortunate case from 2007 illustrates what can happen if you get too sloppy.

In January 2005 a mother de-registered her fourteen year-old daughter and younger brother from school in order to teach them at home. An EWO visited in April that year and then again in May. There was a certain amount of uneasiness about the family, but it was decided to sign them off for a year. In June 2006, there was another visit. Everything was fine according to the local authority officer. She did not notice that the mother was horribly depressed. Some people had concerns though, because the children's mother was a little strange. The following March, Enfield became aware that the daughter had actually died in early November the previous year! During that time, the corpse of the girl had been laying on the floor of the living room; the mother being reluctant either to arrange for its disposal or even to notify anybody that the child had died. The cause of death was never established and Enfield got off quite lightly at the subsequent Serious Case review.

The best way of preventing schools using home education as a way of shedding unwanted pupils would be to adopt Recommendation 14 of the Badman report and require local authorities to make annual returns to the Children's Trust Board about the number of home educated children in their area. If the Department for Education became involved in this, the local authorities would probably buck their ideas up a bit and also crack down on the schools which are operating this racket.

Friday, 27 August 2010

This blog

Until a week ago, I was convinced that the only thing which attracted so many readers to this blog was the luminous quality of the prose which I turn out with such effortless insouciance. Sadly, this would seem not to be the case. Indeed, when I mentioned that I had been keeping this blog for over a year, several regular contributors to the comments hastened to set me straight about their motives for coming on here every day. Apparently for some, reading this blog is a distasteful duty which must be undertaken, whether or not one feels like it. I must say that this strikes me as absolutely extraordinary. There are many completely mad blogs on the Internet, some of them written by world class idiots. I occasionally come across such things and seldom bother to return. How different, how very different from the response of those who visit here and conclude that I am an ignorant fool and malicious to boot. They keep coming back for more! I have been puzzled by this in the past, but a little research shows the sheer altruism which motivates some of my most dedicated readers.

Here is a typical case of somebody who feels reluctantly compelled to come on here and express her opinions:

I started commenting on your blog only because you made some ill-informed remarks about children with special needs. I think that many other of your remarks are also ill-informed, so have felt obliged to continue to comment.

Now I am bound to say at once that I have been working with and writing about adults and children with special educational needs and disabilities for about a quarter of a century. I doubt that my remarks on the subject have been 'ill-informed'. Crass and offensive perhaps; even insensitive or unpleasant, but I am, I think, pretty well informed on the subject. Another person said much the same:

I too only come here to check and set the record straight from time to time,

These people put me in mind of Lord Longford when he was investigating pornography some years ago. He forced himself to visit various unsavoury shops in Soho and leafed through the most disgusting materiel, all for a very good cause. I imagine some of my readers in the same way. There they sit, hunched over their keyboards in darkened rooms, muttering 'Filth!' or 'Disgusting!'. But they know their duty too well just to log off and look at something a little more agreeable!

Another regular here, who lives in Brighton, has an even stranger reason for feeling obliged to visit and comment here. She is worried about the effects of what I say upon those who are just starting to home educate. She comes here, 'in case there are new home edders feeling thoroughly put-off...' This really plumbs new depths of weirdness! I am a fanatical home educator whose daughter never set foot in school. I have shown that contrary to what some local authority officers claim, it is perfectly possible to pass any GCSE at home, including the three sciences. Anybody coming here will soon learn that however repulsive I might be personally, I am living proof that home education can succeed in delivering a rigorous, academic education at least as efficient as that provided by the best independent school. How on earth will this 'put off' new home educators?

Interestingly, the parents who email me privately do not seem to feel at all put off by what they read here. A week does not pass without somebody contacting me for advice or information. I have never been told that anybody has felt 'put off' home education by anything which they might have read here. Nor incidentally have the parents of children with special needs ever berated me for my unacceptable views on disability. I have noticed that those who criticise me most vehemently about this do not apparently have children themselves with special educational needs. There is something horribly patronising about people complaining on behalf of families with special children, as though these people know better than others what is likely to be unacceptable in this field. It is true that I have had a few irritable things to say in the past about the number of parents in the home education world who claim that their children have special educational needs which are not being catered for at school and which have made it essential that their children are educated at home. Closer examination often reveals these problems to be relatively mild conditions such as dyslexia and attention deficit. Now I freely admit that I sometimes get a little impatient about this. I work with some children who have severe learning difficulties and are non-verbal, unable to walk and also have epilepsy. To hear some mother going on about her kids 'special needs' when all it amounts to is that he can't sit still and concentrate, does annoy me a bit. This is perhaps the sort of 'ill-informed' view which has caused people to find it necessary to monitor this blog!

I think that people sometimes overestimate the significance of this blog. It is nothing more than the personal thoughts of a former home educator. It is not, as I have had cause to remind folk in the past, a peer reviewed, academic journal. The ideas expressed here are usually my own and if others find those thoughts disgusting or contrary to their own inclinations, then it does not really worry me. I am of course happy for everybody to come here and comment; that's why I don't moderate the comments at all. However, if anybody really is upset by the sort of things which I say here, then there are plenty of other blogs on home education which cater for the kind of wooly-minded crank determined to avoid at all costs teaching her child. This blog is about education, education outside the school system. Such education can be, as I said above, at least as successful as anything being offered in the best of independent schools. Somebody commented here recently, saying;

Why is home education not as good as good to Eton college Webb

Well it is, or at least it can be if parents wish to put in the time and effort. For those reluctant to do so for ideological or perhaps ergonomic reasons, home education is likely to remain a poor substitute for school based education. I am hardly to blame for that; such is the nature of the world!

Thursday, 26 August 2010

The topsy-turvy world of the home educators

It isn't hard to see sometimes why local authority officers get a bit ratty with certain home educating parents. Often, the reason is that these parents are working to a set of standards and beliefs which are pretty well diametrically opposed to what everybody else in the UK thinks. An exaggeration? Not really. let's look at a few specific examples.

Almost everybody in Britain regards education as a way to get on in the world. Formal qualifications are accepted as being a useful tool to demonstrate knowledge and ability and to help in getting a good job, training course or university place. When I suggested this over the last couple of days, I was pounced on at once. In fact, according to several home educators, formal qualifications can actually prevent one from getting a job or advancing into higher education. Some home educating parents see them as a positive hindrance and cannot see why anybody would bother with examinations at all. Here is what one person had to say:

A stack of A*s might help if you intend to compete for places at RG universities or blue chip management trainee places after graduation, but they could reduce your chances with local companies looking for someone who is likely to stay with them, rather than disappear the moment they get a better offer from elsewhere.

Here is somebody else who thinks that having GCSEs might not be a good idea:

gaining one set of qualifications will reduce opportunities to gain others and may close or reduce opportunities in *some* employment routes,

And another;

often people with no or very few exams results is a better bet as he/she is more likely to stay in the job long term!

All these people were commenting on what I thought was the fairly uncontroversial suggestion that having five GCSEs at grades A*-C was better for a teenager's prospects than not having any GCSEs at all! It is this sort of thing which makes some rational people who are sympathetic towards home education (and indeed some dedicated home educators themselves) bang their heads up and down on their desks in frustration.

Here is another instance. Almost without exception, parents and teachers in this country feel that it is a good thing for children to start reading at an early age. Not only does this help in their thinking skills, it also enables them to learn through books and other printed material, as well as expanding their vocabulary, increasing their attention span and enabling them to learn to spell painlessly. Almost every parent and teacher in the country would be worried and disturbed if children were unable to read at the age of twelve or thirteen. Some home educating parents though seem almost to revel in the fact that their children cannot read by the age at which everybody else's kids are starting secondary school. They refuse to see this as a problem and insist that it is the doctrinaire ideologues of the orthodox educational establishment who are at fault for expecting such a thing.

These are just two examples; I could give many more. What this means is that when teachers and local authority officers come into contact with such parents, there is little common ground. This can result in mutual frustration and anger, because even the most rudimentary elements of an education such as a curriculum, are viewed by some of these parents as part of a sinister plot to harm their particular style of education. It is extraordinarily difficult to have a meaningful dialogue with those whose world-view is so different from everybody else. One finds the same thing when talking to Scientologists or Jehovah's Witnesses. Indeed, some of the more extreme and dedicated of these parents put one in mind of the followers of a particularly outlandish religion. Just as I long to say to the person selling the Watchtower 'You don't really believe all that nonsense, do you?', so too I would like to ask these parents 'You don't really think that having five GCSEs at grades A*-C could be a bad thing for a teenager, do you?'. Evidently, they do and there is no more to be said about the matter.

No wonder that most local authorities are calling for additional legal powers to monitor and supervise home education. Parents who believe that the possession of GCSEs might jeopardise or harm employment prospects or hinder progression into higher education. Others who deny the wisdom of teaching children to read and write before they become teenagers. Still others whose ideology brings them into conflict with current case law which touches upon home education. Take the simple need for a statement of educational intent for the coming year, a suggested requirement which provoked howls of protest and a chorus of condemnation in some quarters. What does the law say about this? In the judgement in the case of R v Secretary of State for education, ex Parte Talmud Torah Machzikei Hadass School Trust in 1985, Mr Justice Woolf ruled that an 'efficient' education was one which ' 'achieves what it sets out to achieve'. This is one of the key cases of precedent which establish in law what is meant by an 'efficient' and 'suitable' education. Since home educating parents, like all other parents in the UK, must cause their children to receive an efficient education and since this must be one which 'achieves what it sets out to achieve', it follows logically that all home educating parents must be setting out to achieve certain aims in the education which they are providing. Otherwise of course, they could hardly know later whether or not they have achieved 'what they set out to achieve'. This shows clearly that they must have a set of aims and that there can be no objection to them writing those aims down and sharing them with others.

Until some parents make a few alterations to their views on education, I cannot see that conflict with local authorities is likely to diminish. Speaking for myself, I can readily understand why local authority officers find that dealing with certain parents has a nightmarish, Alice in Wonderland quality.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Giving children choices

Now either I write in a very incoherent and confusing fashion or some of the people reading this blog are deliberately obtuse. We must hope that it is not a combination of both these things, otherwise I might as well give up and stop writing these pieces altogether! I have for the last couple of days been trying to make what seems to me a very simple point; that the more formal qualifications a teenager possesses, the better, generally speaking. This is because having things like high grade GCSEs and/or A levels mean that good jobs, vocational courses and higher education are all likely to be easier for the young person to obtain.

Unfortunately, some people here have interpreted this to mean that I do not value vocational courses; that I think that every young person should go to university; that I believe everybody should follow my own methods of education and that I am an 'education snob'. This last is utterly bizarre. Simone's sister went to live at a riding school after taking her GCSEs. She was never academic and has worked happily with horses for the last five years. I don't recall that this choice was ever seen as being in any way inferior in our house to Simone's wish to attend university.

Under the guise of giving children choices, some home educating parents do not enter their children for examinations routinely; doing so only if the child specifically asks for this. This can of course result in a teenager without any GCSEs or A levels. Nobody can possibly have any idea of what a sixteen or seventeen year-old will want to do. Often, a fifteen year-old's ambition is very different from that of the same child at twelve. Similarly, the plan might change by the time the young person is seventeen. The aim of a responsible parent is to ensure always that the young person has as many options available to her as is possible. So that if the child reaches sixteen and wishes to be a carpenter, she may do so. If she wishes instead to go to college to study A levels, she should also be able to do that. On the other hand if she wishes to train to be a plumber, that too must be possible. If a child has five GCSEs at grades A*-C, then all these choices will be possible. If a child has no GCSEs, then one of these choices, that of going to college to study A levels, is likely to be denied to her. This is what I mean by a child being restricted in her choices by the parents' decisions. The child might reach the age of sixteen, wish to pursue a certain course and not be able to do so. So in some cases, having the five GCSEs at A*-C will make a certain choice possible. I cannot think of any circumstances where having five GCSEs at grades A*-C would prevent any choice. They certainly won't stop anybody training to be a plumber or being apprenticed to a carpenter. This being the case, it is better for a sixteen year-old to have five GCSEs at A*-C than not to have them.

When we look at the situation when a child reaches seventeen and may want to go to university, then it is again a good thing if the child can choose between as many universities as possible. The more A* GCSEs that a teenager has, the wider the choice of university which is likely to be available. In other words, having six or seven GCSEs at A* will mean that a teenager might be able to apply to Cambridge or Royal Holloway. If a teenager had only grades Bs and Cs, then her choice might be restricted to only one of those two choices. I cannot see that this would be a better thing. My daughter got four As at AS level. This means that her choice of universities is wider than that of her friend who only managed Cs. The A's therefore give the child more choice.

When parents decide that they will not get their child to study for and take GCSEs, then the parents are making decisions about their children's future. The decision made is that the child will have fewer choices at the age of sixteen than is the case with a child who did study for and take a bunch of GCSEs. I cannot offhand think of any choice which will be restricted by the possession of GCSEs, but I can think of choices which will be denied by their lack. This means that parents who do not get their children to take GCSEs are, in effect, restricting their child's future choices. I do not see this as a good or desirable thing.

Of course, there is no reason at all why a parent should not restrict a child's choices in this way if that is what they think is for the best. It is surely sensible though to acknowledge that this is what is being done. It is perfectly true that some young people are not suited to higher education and have no wish to go to university. This should be the child's own decision though, not one made on their behalf by their parents at a very young age. By not making provision for GCSEs, or ensuring that the child studies for another qualification such as Open University credits, parents are putting their children at a grave disadvantage if they do decide to go into higher education or even take some vocational courses.

Even if the child does not want to go into higher education, the GCSEs will come in handy. Simone's sister needed to have a basic knowledge of science and mathematics and when she went for the interview at the riding school; the proprietor wanted to be sure that she had English, mathematics and science at at least grade C. A couple of years ago she was toying with the idea of re-training as a mechanic. The course which she was considering required GCSE mathematics at B. Not having any GCSEs is a great disadvantage, even if you never want to go near university. Also worth remembering is this. For many people, a child who has been out of school for years and has not got any GCSEs can look very much like a child who has been excluded from school. I have seen this confusion arise when people are looking at my daughter. They are thinking, 'Uh Oh, something weird here. Why has she been out of school? Bad behaviour, learning difficulties?' The glittering array of GCSEs reassures these idiots. I don't myself much care what people like that think, but it could have a poor effect upon my daughter's chances. If she is applying for a job and they think that she is a no hoper who was chucked out of school and therefore has no qualifications, they are less likely to employ her. Application forms often do not give much room for such information. All the prospective employer might see is a blank box for GCSEs and under 'schools attended', the information, 'educated at home'. Many would rather play safe by calling for interview the applicant with a more conventional profile.

The decision not to take GCSEs can cast a very long shadow indeed. All I am saying is that perhaps parents should consider the implications of making such a decision carefully. The bad effects upon a child's future are certainly not limited to not being able to get to a Russell Group university, but can pursue them even if they do decide to become a carpenter or mechanic.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The weatherman and the rules

When I was little, my family used to go and stay with my grandmother at the seaside. She had one of those weather-houses, the kind made in the shape of an alpine chalet, where a little woman would come out if the weather was dry and a little man would come out if it was likely to wet. I remember once when we had a day out planned and the little man came out. I pushed him back in hope of discouraging the rain. My infant mind had of course confused cause and effect; I thought that the man was actually causing the bad weather, rather than merely foretelling it.

I think that I know now how that little man in the weather-house must have felt! I have in the past drawn attention to some of the unspoken rules which govern university admissions. I did so again yesterday, which irritated a few people. I can't really see why this should be; I don't make these rules and neither do I approve of them. I just think that it is important that everybody is aware of them. Those in independent schools already know them by and large. Ignorance of these rules harms the prospects of children at maintained schools or who are being educated at home and so I think it good to create a level playing field by telling everybody the hidden rules which one seldom hears teachers mention in state schools. Since almost half of all children will go to university, this is not an esoteric, minority interest, but something which it is vital to know about. It affects a lot of children. The stranglehold of the independent schools upon good universities is maintained by these rules and yet judging by some of the comments yesterday, a number of parents are happy for this to continue. I am not. I want all children from all backgrounds to know what they should do if they wish to go to a prestigious university.

I have mentioned before the importance of GCSEs in getting in to university. I am not going to go on about this again, except to say that I have been saying this for years and that this particular cat is really out of the bag now. So too is the importance of having a string of A* GCSEs if you wish to have as wide a range of choices as possible when applying for university. As was said in yesterday's Telegraph:

Martin Stephen, the High Master of St Paul’s School, west London, said that some universities rejected students who failed to get a string of elite A*s at GCSE.
“The A* is being used as a crude, preliminary filter which is hugely regrettable because it simply discriminates against the late developer,”

This too is not generally emphasised in maintained schools. The school gets no extra credit for kids who get A*s and so it is not a big thing. The league tables are concerned with A*-C, so the focus is more upon getting those predicted Ds into the C category. Most parents at maintained schools do not even realise that a clutch of A*s is necessary if you wish to take your pick of universities. Those at independent schools usually do know this.

The lack of knowledge about the importance of GCSEs and the vital role of the A* is one way that children who do not attend independent schools are decanted into poorer universities or end up doing vocational course instead. There are other cunning methods and these kick in during A levels. My daughter's college announced last week that the percentage of students getting As at A level had tripled in one year! This reminds me of the sort of speech that one heard in the Soviet Union when they were announcing a bumper harvest or the hug number of tractors being made or something. You just know that there is more to it than meets the eye. Still, three times the number of As at A levels. Surely this means teaching which is three times as good, or students working three times as hard, or both? Actually, it means three times as many students being pushed to take up useless A levels like photography and media studies. Photography is a boom subject in many maintained schools. Friends of ours have children who are being urged to take this at A level. If you want to boost your sixth form's A level results, get more of the kids to do photography. The same goes for media studies. There is a terrible problem though and it is one which one seldom hears in maintained schools or FE colleges

All A levels are not equal. If you wish to get into a Russell Group university, A levels in photography or media studies will not be counted. This is another of those rules which many kids at state schools are not told. One of the teenagers at the Oxford summer school with my daughter had a load of A* GCSEs and really wanted to go to Oxford. She was however doing business studies, law and accountancy. All three of these A levels are useless if one wishes to go to Oxford. her school had not told her this when she made her choices and so she was effectively barred from many universities. It seems weird really. You might think that A level law or A level accountancy would be academic A levels which top universities would love. They are not. They are in the same category as photography. Another piece of information which state pupils are not told. Psychology is, on paper, a scientific subject like physics. Many universities though will not accept it.

The aim of sixth forms and FE colleges is to get as many students to pass A levels as possible. The more As that they achieve; the better. So it make sense to get them to push subjects which their pupils are more likely to pass, such as law and photography. The fact that these subjects effectively bar them from many universities is not revealed. It is another unspoken rule that many parents and children never learn.

In the ideal world, all children and their parents would have access to the sort of information which I have outlined above. Many do not. The children of our friends who will be studying photography and media studies will have, despite many good GCSEs, no chance at all of getting into Oxford, UCL, Cambridge or the LSA. At the age of sixteen, their schools have, in effect, made their choice for them about the universities that they will go to. This is shocking but very common in the state sector. I would not like to see home educated children in this position, which is why I have talked about this. Mind you, judging by the comments yesterday, I shall probably be described as 'extreme' or as having a chip on my shoulder about Oxbridge! As I said above, now I know how that little weatherman felt.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Todays GCSE results

The publication of GCSE results today seems to me to be a moment for reflecting upon what these examinations mean to home educating families. One often sees things written by parents who are educating their own children that minimise the importance of GCSEs and suggest that they are hardly worth having, so devalued have they become by so-called 'grade inflation'. This strikes me as a neat excuse for indolence; why should we bother with them, they aren't really worth anything anyway? The truth is that GCSEs are becoming ever more important. Indeed, without them young people face almost insurmountable problems in their future lives.

Let us begin by looking at an article from today's Daily Telegraph:


This article suggests that many universities now use GCSEs to weed out those candidates whom they feel are not really worth bothering with. In other words, they first select those with a string of As and A*s and then chuck out the rest. This process is done regardless of the A levels, OU credits or International Baccalaureate scores. In short: no GCSEs, no consideration. With the squeeze on places at university, this is likely to be even more the case this year and for the foreseeable future. Any young person who wishes to take his pick of universities had better have a clutch of As and A*s at GCSE. Otherwise, he will be restricted to the less prestigious universities or indeed none at all the way things are this year. So for higher education GCSEs are, as I have been saying for years, absolutely vital.

Of course, not everybody wishes to go into higher education. Some young people wish to get jobs at sixteen or eighteen. Here again, the lack of GCSEs is likely to prove a grave disadvantage to them. In its Survey of Employers, published by the Learning and Skills Council in 2006, many employers revealed that they would not even consider giving an interview to a teenager without any GCSEs at all. In fact GCSEs were of huge importance to the potential employers in deciding who they would take. In employment too, as well as in higher education, the lack of GCSEs is a serious handicap for any young person. With rising unemployment, this too will tend to make the GCSEs which an applicant has of crucial importance.

There were two reasons why it seemed to me a wise move to ensure that my daughter had a string of A* GCSEs. Firstly, the information contained in the specifications for these examinations is very useful in itself. Rather than devise a curriculum of my own, the biology, chemistry and physics International GCSE specifications already had in outline the scientific knowledge which a reasonably well educated person should have at her disposal. From that point of view they were valuable for their own sake. They are also useful for making sure that a young person has as many choices as possible in life. My daughter hopes to apply to a Russell Group university. For this, at least six A* GCSEs are indispensable. If, on the other hand, she wished to start work at once, then eight A* GCSEs in academic subjects would impress any potential employer. It is a win-win situation, no matter what she chooses to do. All that we have done is ensure that she has as many options as possible for her future life.

Failing to take all those GCSEs would have curtailed her choices. To give one example. She hopes to apply, as I said, to universities in the Russell Group. The fact that she has been to two summer schools this year, one at Oxford and one at Cambridge universities, will be a great help in this; just what looks good on the personal statement. However, to get on those summer schools in the first place, it was necessary to have a string of A*s. Without them, no summer school.

In his judgement in the case of R v Secretary of State for education, ex Parte Talmud Torah Machzikei Hadass School Trust in 1985, Mr Justice Woolf defined a suitable education as one which:

Primarily equips a child for life within the community of which he is a
member, rather than the way of life in the country as a whole, as long as
it does not foreclose the child's options in later years to adopt some
other form of life if he wishes to do so.

It seems to me that by failing to arrange for their children to sit and take GCSEs, many home educating parents are indeed taking an action which will 'foreclose the child's options in later years to adopt some other form of life if he wishes to do so'. Children are not really able to foresee the consequences of not studying for GCSEs and it is not fair to thrust the responsibility for such a serious decision with so far-reaching implications upon them. Few children probably read the Daily Telegraph and will not be aware that in several years time when they might wish to apply to university, that their lack of GCSEs might disqualify them before they have even sent in their UCAS form. As parents though, we know and we have the responsibility to see that their future prospects for either higher education or employment are not wantonly blighted in this way. That is what home education is for parents; a serious of duties and responsibilities to do the best for our children. Those who would shirk these duties by hiding behind some mythical 'right to home educate' and who seek to pass the buck to their children for serious decisions affecting their future life, should think very carefully about the consequences for those children.

Home education as a Pavlovian reaction

There has in recent years been a great deal of research on free will. By this I mean scientific, rather than philosophical enquiry. The general consensus is that the study of the brain leaves little room for the exercise of free will. It looks as though we act first and then a split second later rationalise our actions after the event. I have been thinking about this process in connection with the decision by parents not to send their children to school. Of course all home educating parents, including me, like to guy up our choice as being based purely upon the best interests of our child; a decision made after carefully weighing up all the pros and cons. Imagine though, if this 'decision' were really to be no more than an instinctive reaction, no more under our control than the salivation of Pavlov's dogs when they heard the ringing of a bell!

When we look at the lives and family backgrounds of home educating parents, certain themes merge. Not all parents of course, but enough to see patterns. Sometimes, parents will have several of these major themes running through their past lives. Let us look at a few of them. To forestall any accusation that I am breaching or invading anybody's privacy, I can assure readers that any information about named parents is taken from the public domain and not from private Internet sites. In other words it is stuff that they have told to reporters or put on open blogs. Something one notices with many home educating parents is that their own schooldays were very unhappy. This was sometimes the case with both mother and father. Ann Newstead of Education Otherwise and her partner Roarke fall into this category. Both have very bad memories of school and so when their child became unhappy, the obvious solution seemed to be to remove school from the equation. Another well known example of this is Paula Rothermel. Talking to parents who home educate reveals a very high proportion who have extremely negative memories of their schooldays. In many cases, the decision to educate their child at home looks simply like a decision to remove from the situation a major cause of their own unhappiness as children; that is to say school.

Another curious pattern is the number of either single children or children who were born with a gap of ten years or more between them and their siblings. Maire Stafford of course falls into this category. I have before speculated that this could have the effect of making this late child somehow more precious and the mother less apt to let it leave her and go to school. Once at school, any slight excuse is sometimes enough to justify the decision to de-register the child and bring her back as a fulltime companion to the mother.

Something else odd is the number of really tragic lives of which one hears. Some home educating parents give accounts of their life and early history which sound like the sort of 'misery memoir' one sees on sale in supermarkets! Rape, childhood abuse and drug use, for instance, often deature in these narratives. Could this be connected with the decision to home educate? Might it be that having had pretty awful times themselves as children and teenagers, these parents are determined to make sure that their own children are not unhappy and that they know how much their parents love them? Are they in some weird way trying to rerun their own childhood through their children in order to make things right the second time round? Not only do quite a few parents present as being tragic, not a few are also very angry. The tragic, angry mother is almost a leitmotif of the home education world. This is not of course to say that their are no jolly and well balanced home educators, but that there is a particular type of mother who is anything but and that this type is commoner than in those who send their children to school.

I must say at once that I can see several of the above ideas at work in my own life and that no matter how much I portray my decision to home educate as being based upon strictly rational considerations, it must have been greatly affected by my own life experiences. We all like to feel that we are masters of our own destiny and few of us relish the idea that we have only behaved in certain ways because of how our childhood was. I am no exception. I have not touched upon several other themes which are quite prominent in home education, for example the child as nurse-companion or the folie-a-deux of mysterious maladies such as ME which seem to afflict mother and daughter combinations in HE families more than in the general population.

Saturday, 21 August 2010


It is one of the enduring mysteries of home education in this country; how many children are actually being educated at home? The Ofsted survey Local authorities and home education, which was published in June, sheds new light upon this.

One big problem when trying to calculate the numbers of home educated children is that everybody exaggerates or underestimate the numbers depending upon who they are talking to and what they wish to prove. Home educating parents do this and so do local authorities and the Department for Education. Graham Badman's report, for instance talks of as many as eighty thousand home educated children in England. The reason for such a high estimate is simple; the more kids there are not at school, the more urgent is the need to do something about them. Badman gave no grounds for putting this figure forward. When the Department for Children, Schools and Families were compiling the impact statement to go with the CSF Bill on the other hand, they ridiculed the suggestion that there might be as many as eighty thousand children. They estimated the true number as much lower. Again, they gave no evidence for this belief. The reason for their wanting a lower figure was that it would make the estimated cost of implementing the bill lower and therefore more acceptable to MPs. Home educators sometimes like to pretend that their are lots of home educated children, if they are trying to make home education look like an unstoppable mass movement. At other times, they want to persuade people that there are only a few measly thousand. They do this when they wish to make the case that because there are so few children, no new legislation is needed.

So what do we actually know about the numbers of home educated children? When York Consulting undertook their feasibility study in 2006, they came up with a rough figure of twenty thousand children known to local authorities. they arrived at this figure by extrapolating from the nine local authorities at whom they looked. It is thought that there are a considerable number of other children who are not registered with local authorities. Many people assume that there are about the same number again as are known, which would give a total number for the whole country of around forty thousand. There is a problem with this though.

Ofsted discovered during their survey last year that the number of home educated children known to local authorities fluctuates dramatically throughout the year. There are usually plenty in September when children are supposed to move to secondary school and their parents decide not to send them. However, by Christmas, many of these parents find that they can't really manage it and then send their kids to school in the new year. One authority found that they had sixty five home educated children in September and only thirty five in the spring. Another had six hundred and thirty in September, which dropped to four hundred and thirty after Christmas. Since there is no standard time to conduct the census of home educated children, it means that the figure of twenty thousand which York Consulting came up with could be wildly out. If the figures they worked from were collected at the beginning of the academic year, then the true number of home educated children could be as few as ten or twelve thousand rather than twenty thousand. If we then accept that roughly the same number of children again are not known to their authorities, this would give us an overall figure for the whole country of only twenty or twenty five thousand. This is a good deal lower than the often quoted figures.

There is also increasing doubt as to the number of children not known to local authorities. Most have lists of rising fives and work together with health visitors and so on. It is quite possible that the number of unknown children is far fewer than those who are registered. All in all, it could be that the actual total number of home educated children in the country is a lot les than twenty thousand.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Autism and home education

Even across the immeasurable gulf of cyberspace, I fancy I can hear the sharp intake of breath and see the narrowing of eyes and shaking of heads which the very title of this post is liable to be causing. What sort of insensitive claptrap is the man planning to come out with now? Does he have an autistic child? What does he know about it then?

All fair questions indeed. I am not proposing to write about the actual home education of autistic children, about which I know nothing. Instead, I am going to talk a little about autistic children and adults of whom I have a good deal of experience and see how this might relate to styles of home education. I will be propounding no dogmata, really doing nothing more than inviting those who do know about this subject first hand to comment.

I used to work for Alice Hoffmann Homes in the 1980s, which is now the Hoffmann foundation. This was when the long stay institutions were being emptied and I was involved in doing assessments of adults from places like Harperbury Hospital in Hertfordshire. The idea was to get them into small residential units. At about the same time I was doing this, I was undertaking short term fostering for Barnados of children on the autistic spectrum. Actually, I met my present wife while working for Alice Hoffmann. Going off at a slight tangent, something I have noticed is that people who choose to work with autistic adults are often a bit peculiar; I don't think it's the kind of work that a normal person could do for long! In fact a lot of people associated in whatever capacity with autistic people come across as being a little strange. This includes many parents. At one time this was of course thought to be the cause of their children's problem; weird parents produced weird children. Kanner, who first defined the syndrome, had no doubt at all about this and some readers are probably familiar with the notorious idea of the so-called 'Refrigerator Mother'. My own feeling is that this is muddling up cause and effect and that the experience of having a child with autistic features most probably changes parents and makes them a bit prickly and tough. This is necessary to protect their children from all the ill informed nonsense which they encounter in the world. In other words it is the experience of having a child who is different which causes parents to be different, not the other way round.

One thing which I noticed about the adults with whom I dealt, all of whom were non-verbal and had severe learning difficulties, is that a lot of them had some special interest or other. One would be attracted by shiny things; jewellery, coins and human eyes, at which he used to grab. Another was fascinated by wheels and other spinning objects. He would stare endlessly at vehicles in the street and had a toy car whose wheels he would spin round, just in order to watch them. It was a large part of the support workers' job to try and distract them from these obsessions and get them to do other things. With higher functioning children, on the other hand, special interests were usually mental rather than purely physical. I remember two boys in particular. One was twelve and his main interest in life was London bus routes. If he met anybody he would ask how they had arrived. His opening gambit would be along the lines of, 'Did you get the 254 here?' or if he knew that one had come from Ilford, he might ask, 'Do you ever get the 86 from Ilford high Road to Romford?' Another boy who took A levels and went to university was very bright but with two passions. These were mountains and the technical specifications of ocean going boats.

Why am I talking about these two young men? For this reason. Much of the education they received was devoted to training them to fit in with everybody else in ordinary society. Just as with the non-verbal adults there was a lot of work in getting them to stop spending all day staring at spinning wheels and live a more 'normal' life, so too with the children who had an over-riding pasion for some obscure topic. Obviously, when I hear that somebody comes from Hackney, the first question I ask is not about what buses they can catch from Mare Street. This would frankly be a bit weird. So we have to try and get a kid like this to change his conversational style a little. We also have to get him if possible to think a little less about buses and a bit more about all sorts of other things. The same goes for a boy whose real interests are mountains and ocean liners. I have to say that I can perfectly understand the attraction of simply collecting facts about things in this way. People are messy, complicated and unpredictable, but the bus route from Oxford Street to Tottenham Court Road is something you can rely upon! Just like the height of Snowden or the cubic capacity of the Titanic's water tanks. I have been accused of preferring books to people before now and there is some truth in this. You can depend upon books in a way that you can't really do with people. You never know what people are going to do next and so there is something comforting about just associating with books and facts. They are safe and predictable.

Many home educated children have special educational needs of one kind and another. According to the recently published Ofsted survey of Local authorities and home educators, a quarter of the children whose parents they spoke to either had statements or had been at the stage of 'school action plus' before they were de-registered. Many of these kids are on the autistic spectrum. Judging by what is said on the Internet lists, not a few of these children are autonomously educated at home. Now here is where I am curious and would be grateful for any information. As I said above, when one has an autistic child at school, a lot of the efforts are to get him to talk and behave like everybody else. No rocking to and fro if he is stressed or bored, not too much conversation about buses, no wiggling your fingers in front of your face to observe the interesting effects of the flickering shadows. Children at school often have pretty detailed programmes about such things. They also have rounded educations which take their minds off any special obsessions which they might have. I am wondering if home educating parents often follow the same approach.

In other words, I can imagine that in the case of the boy who was fascinated by bus routes that if given the choice and allowed to follow his own interests, he would have studied nothing but timetables. Who knows, he might have branched out into train routes and times, but I doubt he would have studied science or mathematics. These would have been an unnecessary distraction from the proper business of timetables and routes. What would a parent who practiced autonomous education do about this? Would she give the child freedom to decide only to study buses? I am also interested to know about behaviour modification, a lot of which takes place in both schools and residential units. I wonder if home educating parents run programmes like this at home. Do they insist that their children conform to certain norms and so on? For instance are they always saying things like, 'Good sitting Robert! Put your hands down. Look at me!' and stuff like that? I have to say, this would sound really strange in a domestic setting as opposed to a school or day centre.

I am not saying that this would be either good or bad, I am just wondering if it happens? I have no doubt that the work done at schools and so on to change the behaviour of some young people can help them to fit into society better. On the other hand, I have seen such children and adults becoming very stressed because some comforting behaviour has been forbidden them. Sometimes, I have thought this cruel although I understand the rationale behind the prohibition. Is anybody aware of any comparisons which have been done, or even any anecdotal evidence about the difference between school and home education for children on the autistic spectrum?

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Inquiry-based learning

Home educators are not in general great ideologues. They tend to get on with their lives and their children's education without worrying overmuch about which pedagogical technique they might theoretically be using. There is however one exception and that is of course autonomous education. This is an ideology or philosophy of education which many home educating parents, particularly in this country, have taken to with enthusiasm.

Autonomous education is really no more than a rather extreme version of inquiry-based learning, which is itself descended from the sixties notion of discovery learning. In all these schemes, the teacher assumes the role of facilitator and not an infallible font of knowledge and wisdom, which was all too frequently the image presented by the traditional pedagogue. Proponents of this philosophy scatter words like 'contructivist' and 'experiential' around when they are writing about their methods.

Now there is of course nothing at all wrong with a little of this sort of pedagogy. Many children have hobbies and interests that they have taken up spontaneously and with which their parents only help when specifically asked to do so. My own daughter was a keen bird watcher and she read up a great deal about birds and their habits, observed them, took notes and also photographed them. I would help when asked by taking her to nature reserves and zoos and buying her various books which she wanted. A perfect example of what I would call enquiry-based science and many home educators would describe as autonomous education. Hot diggety, it sounds as though the guy has had a Road to Damascus type experience! Does this mean that he has become one of us and will soon start posting about the wonders of autonomous education?. Well, no.

One of the great things about home education is that it is possible to segue smoothly from one pedagogical method to another depending upon circumstance, mood of the child, phase of the moon and so on. In the morning there might be intense, highly focused work on mathematics and then in the afternoon an aimless ramble through the countryside to observe whatever one comes across. Obviously, one wouldn't want to stick to the same intensive work all day, every day. However, effective very structured academic work is, one wouldn't want this to be the only sort of learning. Similarly, one wouldn't want the education to consist of nothing but aimless rambles in the countryside. This too would be unbalanced and not make for a good education. Some parents though, eschew entirely the kind of structured teaching which has been planned in advance by adults. They feel that discovery learning should be the primary or even the only technique used with the child. That is to say, the child should lead the education by asking questions and following interests and the parent should simply be on hand to assist in this process. What could be wrong with this?

One of the problems home educators face is that they are often a little out of touch with mainstream education. They sometimes have very negative feelings towards schools and teachers and this can become generalised and lead to a dislike of anything which smacks of orthodox education. This is unfortunate, because there are some pretty important debates going on right now about the value of inquiry-based learning. Since this is very similar to what home educators call autonomous education, these debates are worth following. The gist of the matter is that although enquiry-based learning is still popular in many schools, serious questions are being asked about its effectiveness. There is little empirical evidence for its working and most supporters rely merely upon theory and bare assertion. In short, they say that philosophically it's a great idea and that it must be better than sterile, conventional teaching. It certainly sounds better. We find this attitude not only among orthodox educationalists but also of course in the world of home education. Both teachers and parents can provide plenty of philosophy to support their chosen method, but hardly any solid evidence to show that it works

What it comes down to is this. There is a huge body of evidence to suggest that conventional teaching is pretty effective in getting ideas and knowledge across to children. There is little evidence to suggest that inquiry-based learning and problem-based approaches are similarly effective. The sensible dodge would be to make the ordinary teaching the basic method of education and then supplement it with those methods about whose effectiveness there is doubt. Instead, some parents abandon the tried and tested methods and adopt solely a technique which may be a very inefficient way of learning.

I have never been much of a one for philosophy or ideology myself. I am a fan of Karl Popper, for instance, but when he makes a claim I want to see the evidence. I feel the same way about Dewey, Froebel and anybody else who has what they claim to be a brilliant insight into the nature of learning and education. Any fool can propound a theory of education which sounds plausible. What we need to ask ourselves is how is education based upon this theory working out in the real world of real children and their learning? In the case of inquiry-based learning, the answer is, 'Not very well'. Despite forty years or so of the use of this method, there is very little evidence that it works at all. This contrasts sharply with the huge amount of research and evidence which demonstrates that conventional teaching is effective. For now, and until further evidence emerges, it is probably safer to use traditional methods for the great bulk of a child's education and then supplement it with small amounts of less orthodox learning methods.

Shameless boasting

I thought that readers would like to keep up with my daughter's affairs and so might find this of interest:


Wednesday, 18 August 2010

An important anniversary

I must crave my readers' indulgence as I reflect that this blog has now been running for just over a year. I have been prompted to muse about this by something which I was reading on the HE-UK list recently. A new forum for home educators has been started, called Other(wise) Inclined and the woman who started it mentioned the fact on the HE-UK list. Mike Fortune-Wood, owner of the list, rather sniffily expressed the view that nobody really needed another HE forum and he couldn't see why anybody would want to start one. Others agreed. This struck me as being a bit strange. Imagine if somebody commented here and said that they were starting a blog on home education and I told them that it wasn't necessary because there were already enough blogs on the subject! A little thought though, made things clearer.

I have noticed lately that very few people are posting on either the HE-UK or the EO list. I have observed the same thing about the Badman review Action Group. In fact, looking at a typical day recently, August 17th, I see that the HE-UK, EO and BRAG lists had a total of only twenty four posts. This blog, by contrast, had forty seven; in other words twice as many as the other three lists put together. The number of visitors who come here without posting is of course much greater than that. I must confess that I was a little surprised to discover that numbers of some HE sites have fallen so dramatically. I see that poor Mike Fortune-Wood has now been reduced to trying to drum up visitors for his website by pimping it on BRAG and other lists.

Why are so many people coming onto this blog? Well of course it might be that they are attracted by my facility for (hem, hem) turning out such brilliant prose. I am inclined to doubt this. The writing is competent, but not really worth reading for its own sake. Initially of course, many people came here to hurl abuse at me and denounce me as a traitor and quisling to the cause of home education. Those types seem to have left though. It certainly can't be my winning personality and engaging charm which draws people because, as is generally known, I am an exceptionally abrasive and unpleasant sort of fellow. Exchanging comments with me is about as agreeable as having root canal treatment! Perhaps I am asking the wrong question. Maybe its not that this is an especially wonderful blog, perhaps it's that the other places where home education is discussed have something about them which people don't like and they come here because it is different.

A couple of years ago, there were some very spirited debates taking place on the HE-UK and EO lists. I say 'spirited'; downright vicious would be more accurate. In fact I have never encountered anything like it in my life. New members would join, express an opinion and be immediately savaged. It really was quite exciting. Many of the people who hung out on those two lists seemed to be permanently angry. One or two of them are still around. Ruth O'Hare from Godalming, AKA firebird2110, for instance. Anybody remember the angry pixie from the Faraway tree? That's what she always reminded me of. Also a bit like some retired colonel in Tunbridge Wells, going purple in the face every five minutes over some imagined slight or other. Of course, these angry home educators provided a certain amount of innocent amusement, but the novelty swiftly wore off. Many parents would join the lists, watch what was happening and then leave. The atmosphere on those places really was poisonous, with people being bullied and driven off a lot. I have remarked before on the irony that some of the worst offenders seemed to be mothers who had taken their children out of school due to bullying.

Now I fancy things are a little different here. True, I piss people off with my smug arrogance, but then again some of the people who comment here piss me off, so honours are pretty well even on that score. What I do notice is that there do not seem to be any really unpleasant arguments; people give the impression of trying to find common ground. Also, there is a good deal of humour, which has always been lacking from some other blogs and Internet lists on home education. All in all, if one forgets about the odd mad chess playing father, I think that this is a rather good natured and easy going place to visit, compared as I say with some home education sites.

Well, that's it folks. I'm not much given to nostalgia, but nor did I feel able to leave such a significant anniversary unremarked. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Natural parenting

The word natural has been making rather too many appearances in the comments here for my liking; 'natural parent-child relationship', for instance. We have also seen 'artificial' used in a pejorative sense when talking about my own parenting techniques, 'The artificial excesses you describe'.

I don't know what it is about this concept of 'natural' being good and 'artificial' being bad; especially when it comes to parenting and training children. It is part of a particular mindset which I can't abide. 'Natural' seems to have become generally synonymous with wholesome and good. Of course cholera is quite natural, as are earthquakes and tsunamis. Radioactivity is the most natural thing in the world; even our own bodies are naturally radioactive. We are also made of nothing but chemicals, but 'chemical', like 'artificial' and 'radioactive' seems to have become one of those words which indicate 'bad' and 'dangerous'. It's like those who talk about 'natural' food and compare it unfavourably with 'artificial' foods, foods full of 'chemicals'. One sees on smoothies and so on; 100% natural ingredients- nothing artificial added. Well that's all right then! But wait a minute. I could mix up a solution of orange juice, uranium, arsenic and typhoid germs and then market it with the label; '100% natural - no artificial ingredients'. Yummy!

The idea of 'natural' parenting is so absurd as to hardly need examining. I suppose that in homes where this is the norm, nobody bats an eyelid if the baby shits on the sofa and then starts eating it. After all, it's perfectly natural. Surely they won't try to get the poor little mite to open his bowels over a potty? I wonder what terrible method one would use to achieve that end? What did somebody yesterday describe this sort of distasteful conditioning as? Ah yes, I remember; ' consciously applying a technique that involves, at some level, a distortion of the natural parent-child relationship'. Presumably this obsession with the 'natural' is why so many home educating parents are dead set against vaccinations; there's nothing more natural than a case of polio. There's a comforting thought when you're laying flat on your back in an iron lung, 'At least I didn't use anything artificial to prevent the polio virus from multiplying.' But hang on a moment, an iron lung? That's artificial too! Better switch it off at once. I'm sure that death is far more natural than relying upon some complicated machine in order to breath.

How do we avoid 'distorting the natural parent-child relationship'? Do we try not to impose our will upon the developing child? Are we to avoid conditioning the child and inculcating certain habits? Certainly from what people were saying yesterday, parents should not decide in advance to follow any systematic programme with the kid. That really would be 'abhorrent'. Suppose the baby wishes to eat from the cat's bowl? I have seen a child that wished to do this; crawling around on all fours and copying the cat, even sharing its food. Should we permit this? if not, why not? Will we distort the natural parent-child relationship by insisting that the child voids her bladder in a specified place rather than randomly around the house? This sounds pretty artificial to me! What if my child wants to go out to the park without wearing any clothes. Should I allow this? After all it is a sight more natural to walk about naked. Anybody on here allow their six year old to walk to the park or go shopping without any clothes on at all? You prudes! What about eating earth? Or how about this. Your toddler has insisted on going to the shops naked and then while he is getting bored, he begins fiddling with his penis. What do we do? Try and persuade him that this is not quite the thing in public? Steady on there! What sort of complexes are you going to set up in his infant mind around sex and his genitals? Best leave him to get on with it. Mind you, if you say nothing, he might continue with this habit and still be doing it in public when he is five or six, or even perhaps when he is fourteen. Oh well, it's his body!

It strikes me that nearly all parent impose certain parameters upon their children's behaviour and lifestyle. The rule seems to be that as long as you do this unobtrusively and pretend that you are very laid back about parenting, you qualify for being a 'natural' parent. Admit that you plan ahead and have a system that you are working to and you automatically become that most dreadful of beings; the controlling parent. There is a lot of hypocrisy involved here. Many parents read Penelope Leach and then try to apply her methods consistently. A lot of these techniques are every bit as contrived and artificial as anything which Skinner suggested and yet Penelope Leach seems to be OK for the natural parents. I wonder why this should be?

Firstly of course, she is a woman. I have I think mentioned before that when I used to write for some magazines, Nursery World springs to mind, they would always change my name from Simon to Simone! The reason for this is that mothers feel much more comfortable reading stuff that other women suggest about babies rather than something written by a man. I used to cringe, because I would write a perfectly sound, somewhat dry piece on language acquisition in the under fives and it would be headed, 'Mum Simone Webb explains....' I suspect that if the things which I have written here over the last few days had been by a woman recommending stuff from Penelope Leach or Maria Montessori, nobody would have remarked upon it at all. It was that fatal combination of a man following another man's ideas to raise a little girl. Creepy or what?

Times change. I remember when the most popular book on childrearing was the one by Dr Spock. These days, a book on this subject by a man would probably not sell like hot cakes. So I am thinking that the negative reactions to what I have written on childrearing and operant conditioning are probably less based upon objective analysis of the text and more upon an instinctive feeling that men should not really be involved in the care and upbringing of babies at all - that's really women's work - and secondly in the wooly-headed view that 'natural' is good and 'artificial' is bad. There may of course be a measure of personal dislike and animosity towards me too, which might tend to colour the opinions of those who read anything which I write. How else to explain the comment left by some fool who said: ' everyone's happier when following their own interests, but I suppose that would be such a minute consideration of yours as to be hardly relevant' ?

Monday, 16 August 2010

Parenting styles of home educators

I posted yesterday about the use of operant conditioning with children, which apparently left many readers with the impression that I am a cold and authoritarian parent. Some of the comments were very revealing; 'nauseous', abhorrent', 'distasteful' and so on. I am not altogether surprised by this, because the parenting style of many home educating parents who comment here is very different from my own. Let's have a look at parenting styles and see what the difference is between how I operate and how many other home educating parents seem to do things.

One of the most popular ways of categorising parenting styles is that devised by Diana Baumrind, an American developmental psychologist. Her classifications are very widely used these days. She divides parents into four types, based upon how demanding towards their children they are and how responsive to their needs. The first type are authoritarian parents. They are highly demanding, with very structured homes and expect instant obedience from their children. They are demanding without being responsive. Judging by some of the comments yesterday, this is how readers evidently see me! Perhaps this is because most of them seem to belong to the permissive or indulgent type of parent. This seems to be a very common type of home educator; they feel that they must not demand much of their children, focusing instead upon being responsive to their needs.
The children are free to choose how they wish to behave and few demands are made upon them. These parents are very non-traditional in the approach to parenting. Their children really direct their own lives and decide what they wish to do. There are also uninvolved or neglectful parents, who just leave their kids to it. These are both unresponsive and undemanding. I don't think many of the parents who come on here are like that.

The type of parenting which many psychologists today think is best is what is known as authoritative parenting. These parents are both very responsive but also demanding. This is child-centred parenting which has high expectations in terms of the child's behaviour. There is unconditional love combined with clear standards for the child. This sort of parenting is also known as balanced parenting and it is the parenting which most childcare experts today recommend.

Now I can see clear links between the indulgent or permissive style of parenting, in which few demands are made upon the child, and those home educating parents who describe themselves as autonomous or child centred. They allow the children to dictate what they wish to do, what they will learn and various other matters. Some have no set rules for bedtime or getting up in the morning and their children are almost entirely self-directed. No limits are set on television watching or computer use and no formal academic work is demanded. They do not like telling their children what to do and have an aversion to the word 'No'. Somebody who attends a home education group contacted me recently and said that the other parents at the group stared at her in shocked surprise because she often tells her son, 'No'. The feeling she got was that some home educating parents regarded this in the same light as smacking a child! It has to be said at once that this kind of parenting is associated with serious problems in adolescence and adulthood. What kind of problems? Well, drink and drugs for one. A recent study in America on teenage drinking found that the children of indulgent parents, those who are very warm emotionally to their children but make few demands upon them, are three times as likely to binge drink as the children of authoritative parents. The children of authoritarian parents were also at risk of misusing alcohol, as were those of uninvolved parents.

The children of permissive parents are also more prone to getting into trouble generally as adolescents than those of authoritative parents and also more likely to experiment with illegal drugs. Not surprisingly, they do not do as well academically either! On the plus side, indulgent parents do tend to have children high in self esteem and with low levels of depression. By far the best adjusted and happiest children and teenagers are those of authoritative parents. They are socially more competent than other children and generally better able to function in society. This is not only their own perception of themselves, they have very high self esteem, but also shows up on objective tests. Academically, this group also performs best.

A parenting style which imposes strong demands upon the child to behave in accordance with the parents expectations seems to be psychologically the best and most healthy for children. When this is combined with a child centred approach, unconditional love and a degree of flexibility, the resultant way of raising a child is called balanced parenting and it is almost universally recommended. Permissive parenting on the other hand, where the child decides for herself what she will do and when she will do it and few demands are made upon her by parents, is associated with many problems in later life. I said yesterday that I deliberately set out to use operant conditioning to modify my children's behaviour. I can make no such claim about my authoritative style of parenting. This came about through observing some pretty frightful children of friends, all of whom had been raised in an indulgent fashion by their misguided parents. These kids were generally of the spoilt brat type and some were so awful that we stopped inviting their parents round. It was the experience of those children which caused me to think carefully about what seemed the best way of childrearing. These were not dysfunctional families; most of those were uninvolved or neglectful parents. Our friends tend to be teachers, social workers and so on. The indulgent parenting style definitely seemed to be most popular among them.


I know that some people are getting irritated at the moderation here, but I really can't think of a way to stop this just at the moment. Peter Willliams from Hampshire is still bombarding this blog with dozens of messages every day, under the mistaken impression that I work for Hampshire County Council and can help with his problems. Here is a sample of the sort of thing which he is sending:

'We going to send 2 letters of complaint to Hampshire Council 2day Webb see it has an English lesson LOL'

'new complaint about HCC send today Webb lol tell teacher Julie that Peter on do 3 complants a week in writing LOL'

'we going to bury them in paper work Webb LOL'

'we bury them in paperwork LOL '

'who give to hoots about going to university'

'Balls is finshed your daughter picked a loser lol '
'All children should have education like the children get at Eton college LOL '

'Why is home education not as good as good to Eton college Webb '

'anther chess player just been smashed Webb all the life went out of him after Peter 9th move every time Peter wins he does it for home edcuated children who did not agree with uncle Balls/Badman. Peter going to dedicate a game he plays just for you it will be a game where he squeezes every last drop out of the postion really sucks the life out of the opponent but it have to be against a state school child or a teacher you know any who want a game? LOL'

'Peter just played a brillent game on the internet crushing the girl player in 15 moves from what she just said she going to be giveing up playing chess after that seeing to! I hope she was not crying LOL never mind you can hold her hand Webb LO '
'What you teach Webb? how to be a loser? or how to pick the loser of a race! like Badman LOL'

'you dont like it webb becuase we and other home educators had the guts to tell the LA to f off! you where weak and allowed home visits did you get scared when they said we must come round and check on you? '

The problem is that there is just so much of this rubbish that I have to delete it en masse and other posts probably go at the same time. I really can't read all this and if I let it through it just disrupts any debates. I must ask readers to have patience and we must hope that Mr Williams finds some better use for his time in the near future, like signing up for remedial English classes or educating his unfortunate son.