Thursday, 30 September 2010

Making money from the HE Internet lists

I am sometimes accused of making money from home education. This is quite untrue, but I have noticed lately that a few new people are using the Internet lists to sell their products and services to the home educating community. Personally, I find this a bit much, but I suppose it's none of my business really. Still, as regular readers will be only too aware, that has never stopped me from passing comment in the past!

Perhaps the most shameless example of this new breed of entrepreneur hoping to cash in on home education is Kelly Green in Canada. She is currently pimping her self-published book A Matter of Conscience on the lists. This consists of large and indigestible chunks of material from her blog Kelley green and Gold. It's quite a catchy title, with its overtones of ethical concern; it sounds as though it could be written about the struggle against apartheid or the civil rights movement in the Deep South during the sixties. It is at any rate a good deal more imaginative than the title of my own book. I mean Elective Home Education in the United Kingdom, how uninspiring is that? I have to say though that I find Ms green's style of writing unendurably turgid and almost incomprehensible. On page one, she tells us that her great, great grandmother was a native American. That's the sort of personal touch wholly missing from Elective home Education in the United Kingdom ! My editor was utterly ruthless and I don't think that she would have felt that my great, great grandparents' ethnicity helped in any way to inform the debate on home education. A few paragraphs later, Kelly Green says;

' Germany, on the other hand, seems to be a society in constant struggle with the idea of difference, an interesting case study in irony and backlash when it comes to tolerance and the acceptance of minority groups.'

What on earth does this mean? Where is the irony in this situation? We can only guess. Or take this, a few lines later;

'our ability to engender the future together, to imagine it, to develop it in a playful and positive way.'

Does she know what she means by 'engender' in this context? Why should we consider the future in a 'playful' way, rather than in a serious and considered fashion? What would be the advantage of thinking about the future of society playfully, rather than systematically and carefully?

It will be noted that she is using Lightning Source for this book, which is a bit of a giveaway; it is a favourite company for Vanity Publishing. I doubt she could have found a proper publisher for this sort of nonsense.

Another person trying to make a fast buck by advertising on the home education lists is Patricia Hope. One cannot help wondering if this is her real name. It reminds me of Patience Strong, who used to do those ghastly little bits in the papers years ago. Anyway, Patricia Hope will sell you either pencil cases or the secret of happiness; links to both her enterprises are helpfully included every time she comments on any of the lists. The secret of happiness involves paying her $40 an hour for counselling, so I think I'll pass on this for now. I can usually buy a decent pencil case at WH Smiths , so I shall be giving this a miss too. These sites also offer links to her daughter's business, which is putting one in touch, for a price, with angels!

Paula Cashmore in the Midlands will, for £60, come round to your house for a couple of hours and explain to your friends and relatives why you want to educate your children at home. Yes, I thought this a little steep too, as well as completely pointless. For £240, she will come round for a couple of hours, speak to you on the telephone for fifty minutes each week and answer your questions by email. Or, you can just join a few lists and support groups and ask all the questions you like for nothing; the choice is yours. This business cashes in on the anxiety which some people feel about visits from the local authority. Instead of allaying these fears, Ms Cashmore exploits them and tries to kid vulnerable parents into thinking that you need the help of a professional to get through a routine meeting with a local authority officer. Just as with Patricia Hope, the name Cashmore seems a little odd, a little too apposite.

There does seem to be a bit of a cottage industry springing up around home education lately. Not that there is any harm in that, but I do have reservations about so many people using the support groups to tout for business. The way that it works is that these people will post pretty pointless comments, often just agreeing with a previous poster and then including a link to the commercial site that they are operating from. I am glad to see that one of the lists which I am on has put a stop to this now.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Another of my 'straw men'

One of the problem when dealing with home educators is that they tend to argue every point with great tenacity, even about things that everybody else in society accepts as being more or less true. There is of course nothing wrong with that; I am famous myself for disagreeing with those around me. Sometimes though, home educating parents take this a bit far and even establishing the most minor fact becomes so laborious and time consuming a process that all but the most rugged and determined lose heart!

The expression 'straw man', like the word 'conflate', is impossible to avoid lately when exchanging views with home educators! I honestly can't remember the last time I read a post on one of the HE Internet lists where some government agency or one of their lackeys was not being accused of conflating one thing with something else quite different. As for 'straw men'; why, anybody would think that I was running a scarecrow factory here from the number of complaints I receive about my straw men, which home educators apparently keep stumbling across whenever they visit this blog! The latest straw man that I have been apparently setting up is the idea that for many parents, their only source of information is the Internet. Somebody commenting here a few days ago said,

' Do you know any parents that rely soley on the internet? Or is this another straw man argument?'

The suggestion that I am setting up a straw man by hinting that a lot of parents rely only upon the Internet for information is a prime example of the difficulty which I mentioned at the beginning; that home educators seem to inhabit a different world from everybody else. That many parents do indeed rely solely upon the Internet to acquire information is undoubtedly the case and the fact that somebody would question this only goes to show just how out of touch some home educators are.

Let us suppose that a child's homework entails finding out the exports of Chile. There are many ways to get hold of this information. One could go to the library and get a book out about South America, one could reach down a book of one's own and look up Chile, one could watch television in the hope of a documentary about Chile being on that evening, ring up the Chilean Embassy and ask them; the list is endless. In the real world though, children and their parents will just go onto the Internet to find this out. I would be surprised if many parents would suggest the library or television as the first port of call for homework about Chile. Many homes these days do not have encyclopaedias or other reference books in them. Almost all would use the Internet. For many people, this is more or less the only way that they would ever think of getting information which they wanted.

According to several people who commented here a day or two ago, this is not always the case with home educating parents, which I am glad to hear. For the average family though, this is where information is almost exclusively acquired now in day to day life. Schools do not recommend, as once they did, that children go to the library to research homework. Instead, they tell them to look things up on the Internet. Many secondary school pupils go through the whole five years without being given a book at all. No maths books, no history books, nothing at all; everything is done via electronic media supplemented by photo-copied sheets. Many homes too have no books in them at all, let alone reference books. Those that do have books often only have a few thrillers and the children might have some Jaqueline Wilson novels. Otherwise, that's it. The only magazines are likely to be those dealing with the lives of footballers and pop stars. All information must perforce come from the computer terminal. I wonder how the person who made the comment which I quoted above thinks that the average parent finds things out for their children? In other words, if a child needs to know what year Napoleon was born, or the date of the Battle of Trafalgar or a million and one other things, does this person really think that most parents pop down to the library to find out?

This depiction of modern family life is no straw man, simply how things are today in many homes in this country and the fact that a number of home educating parents are unaware of how things have changed in recent years is a little bit alarming. It also makes trying to discuss things heavy going, because before one can even begin to debate, it is necessary to explain how life in modern Britain actually works! These people are constantly claiming that their children get out and about and meet all sorts of people, but I don't think that the people they are meeting can be ordinary, everyday folk of the kind which I know. If they were, then the distorted and unrealistic view of the modern world which some of these characters seem to have might stand a chance of being modified or even changed completely. They would discover that for a great many families in this country, parents and children, the Internet is the first and in many cases the only port of call when they are seeking information.

My daughter's views on politics

For those of you who cannot get enough of my daughter and me, a fairly general sentiment I believe, here is a chance to hear what she has to say about the political situation in this country. She is at the Labour Party Conference in Manchester today and was asked to help field calls on a phone-in on Radio 5 this morning. The more cynical among you, and indeed almost everybody in the United Kingdom who is not one of her parents, may well be scratching their heads
at this point and asking, 'What on earth does a seventeen year old girl know about anything?' This is a fair point and one which I am forced to concede! Any way, for those who do want to hear what she has to say, the phone-in starts at 21 minutes into the programme.

There are also a number of strange people with provincial accents, but I wouldn't listen to them too closely. The good Lord alone knows where they find these peculiar individuals! I didn't realise before that anybody actually lives in the North of England; beats me why these types don't move to the Home Counties like everybody else.

A statement of educational intent

Somebody commented here about yesterday's piece. I had mentioned that there had been opposition from some parents to the idea contained in the Badman review about providing a plan of education for the coming year. The person said;

'I hope, after providing you with some information about how autonomous education actually works, you now understand why a plan of education is such a difficult thing for AEors to provide.'

Well no, I don't understand this at all. In fact to put the case in the vernacular, it seems completely potty to me to oppose such a thing! Perhaps we should look first at what Graham Badman actually suggested in his report. This is to be found in the eighth bullet point of Recommendation 1. He says;

'At the time of registration parents/carers/guardians must provide a clear statement of their educational approach, intent and desired/planned outcomes for the child over the following twelve months.'

What are we to make of this? The idea behind this recommendation is pretty straightforward. It is to focus the parent's mind upon what she hopes might be achieved in the coming year. Writing such a statement would get the parent to stop for a moment and think about what her child was currently doing and what she hoped that he might be able to do in a year's time. As far as I am able to understand, autonomous educators objected to this idea because their children might do other things as well in the course of the next year, surprising and unexpected things which they would be unable to predict. The individual who made the comment quoted above gave the example of her child becoming interested in music and taking up the playing of an instrument.

I simply do not see that this has anything at all to do with the case! I had perhaps a clearer vision of what I hoped that my daughter would achieve in the coming year than most home educating parents. I never had any problem discussing these plans, either with my local authority or anybody else who would listen! Nor did I have a problem with committing these plans to paper. Even so, my daughter took some very surprising directions which I could never have foreseen. Take the year that she decided to take up bell ringing, by which I mean church bells. I could not have guessed that she would take this up when she was eleven, nor that she would go on to take part in various competitions and ringing quarter peels and so on across Essex and East London. Although unexpected developments like this occurred with her life and interests, as indeed they do with all children, this did not mean that she abandoned any other aspect of her education. Why would she? Plenty of children take up hobbies and other interests without it preventing them from studying science or history at the same time. So the argument that somebody's child became an accomplished musician and that this came as a surprise to the mother, does not seem to me to have any bearing on the matter. This sort of thing happens to all children, whether in school, being taught at home in a structured way or autonomously educated. It's what children do.

When all's said and done, what would the statement of education have required? Well, parents would have been required to give some idea of their educational approach. That would not have presented a problem surely for autonomous educators? Their educational approach is autonomous. They would not object to telling their local authority that, it is what they already say in the educational philosophies any way, so this should not be controversial. What about their 'intent' and 'desired outcomes'? These two should not really present any sort of difficulty either. If one has a child who is unable to read at the age of ten, I rather think that a 'desired outcome' in the coming year for any parent would be that the child started reading independently. I would be surprised to hear of any parent of a ten year old who did not have this as a desired outcome for the coming year. What would be the problem with writing this down on paper? In fact we all have hopes for what our children might be doing and achieving in the next twelve months.

Of course, autonomous educators are quite right when they say that it is impossible to predict entirely what a child will be doing and learning over the coming year. All children take up interests and want to find out about things that their parents could not have guessed in advance. A child at school might have a sudden enthusiasm for some sport or finding out about dinosaurs. This is perfectly normal and does not mean that that the kid abandons mathematics or history. These childish passions can sit easily alongside a curriculum; they do not usually replace it!

I find it hard to imagine any parent who does not have hopes and wishes for her child's future development. All parents want their children to grow and learn. I am sure that this is also the case with autonomous parents. Perhaps their hopes do not centre around strictly academic achievement. The mother of a child with severe learning difficulties might hope that her child increases his command of Makaton signs or becomes able to go to the shop alone. Whatever the child and no matter the age, all parents have such hopes. It is a reluctance to write down these hopes and share them with others which seems to be at the root of the opposition to providing a statement of educational intent.

Monday, 27 September 2010

More developments at the Department for Education

There are more signs that something may be afoot at the DfE regarding home education. Members of the European Academy for Christian Homeschooling have been invited to meet civil servants at the Department for Education tomorrow, Wednesday 29th September. These are the people who distribute the Accelerated Christian Education or ACE material in this country. For those who are unfamiliar with this, ACE is a highly structured curriculum which is used by some Christian schools and also by many home educators. Everything is related to scriptural teaching, even science. Here is the email which they have sent to home educators using the ACE stuff;

'We are having a meeting at the Department of Education at their request with significant civil servants next week on the subject of home education.
If you have reports from your local education authority advisers or inspectors which you would be willing to make available to us to give to the Department of Education if they ask us could you send us copies? Scanned versions and email might be the only way we could do this at this stage. But if you are able to help we would be grateful to receive this.'

The obvious implication of this meeting is that the civil servants want to see how parents using a highly structured curriculum are getting on during monitoring visits from their local authority. The question is, why? I have, in my usual nosy fashion, emailed the ACE people and asked them what is going on, but have not yet received an answer. Some other home educating parents are now becoming anxious that this is a sign that the Department for Education is scheming to implement that part of the Badman review which recommended that parents be required to provide their local authority each year with a plan of the education which they would be providing for their children over the next twelve months. There was great opposition to this from some parents. The rumour is that Penny Jones, who is still active in the DfE is overseeing this invitation and that other structured home educating groups may also have been invited to meet with civil servants.

I think that what is making some people uneasy about this is the possibility that the DfE will get broad agreement from some groups about the advantages of having a curriculum for home educators and then present this as evidence of having with consulted home educators about this question. This would legitimise the introduction of a requirement such as that suggested by Graham Badman of a statement of educational intent. I have to say at once that I have no idea at all if this is what is happening; only that some people are worrying that this is what might be going on.

I have remarked before that Michael Gove has already talked in terms of things changing and that even Graham Stuart has said of the situation currently around home education, ' Just leaving it isn't an option'. The clear implication from all these developments is that something will be announced by the DfE about home education in the near future. What it will be is anybody's guess, but there is definitely something going on. I am very much afraid that recent cases, such as the alleged murder of the three home educated children in Edinburgh recently, have precipitated a bit of a knee jerk response from the DfE. This may not work to the advantage of home educators. Just as laws rushed in to deal with dangerous dogs and ownership of firearms are usually bad laws and impossible to enforce, so too it might prove the case if any laws are made about home education in response to a few shocking and atypical cases.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The hidden curriculum; parents' choices

I didn't really make myself clear in yesterday's piece. It's not the first time and I doubt if it will be the last! Let me try to put the thesis in another way. I believe that a lot of this fancy talk about children being given choices about their education is at best misleading and at worst downright deceptive and dangerous. It is all the more dangerous for all parties because the parents genuinely don't see how they are making the choices for the children years in advance. They honestly don't realise that they are setting out a curriculum for their children and moulding their education even before they are born.

I have been accused in the past of thinking that only university is the ultimate aim of home education and that everything else is second best. This is not true of course, although I certainly do not think it right to discourage children from getting into higher education if that is what they want to do. I believe that they should be encouraged to consider this as an option. Here is a simple question. What is the most reliable indicator when a baby is born of whether that baby will grow up and go to university when she is old enough? Is it parental income? The district which the child is born in? The educational attainment of her parents? It is in fact none of these things. A huge survey in both America and China earlier this year conformed what I had long suspected. The single most significant factor in whether a child goes to university is how many books there are in her home. Growing up in a home with five hundred or more books is the clincher. A dustman's daughter growing up surrounded by hundreds of books is far more likely to go to university than the child of rich and well educated parents who have no books. It is as simple as that. Lots of books are the key.

Straight away, we see that those parents who decide that the Internet is the key to the acquisition of knowledge have handicapped their child's future prospects. Such a decision is seldom, if ever, made for financial reasons. A few hundred tatty and dog eared books from charity shops can be acquired for less than the price of a forty eight inch plasma television and a stack of DVDs. In fact those who choose to rely upon modern technology for their children have already chosen to sabotage their children's education and discourage them from attending university.

The point is that when home educating parents talk of allowing their children to make choices, they rather imply that these choices are being made freely in a neutral environment. This is of course not so. It is like a conjuror saying, 'pick any card at all'. You know that this is a forced choice and so are the 'choices' made by children about their education. Now I am quite honest about this. I deliberately set about creating an environment which would get my daughter to make the choices about education which seemed wise to me. However, I am not alone in this. All home educating parents, however autonomous, do exactly the same thing. Did you have a television in your home when the baby was born? That is a choice made by an adult which has profound implications for a baby and small child. Do you choose to allow unrestricted watching of a television? This is another choice which has great effects upon a growing child. Have you got a stack of attractive looking children's DVDs? This is another choice which you are making which will affect your child's future. What about having over five hundred books in the house? This is absolutely crucial. Decide against this and you are really discouraging your child from entering higher education in later life. Internet access? Another decision on behalf of the child.

These adult choices create the environment in which a baby will grow up. the baby has not had any say at all in this; the adults have set up the initial conditions which will shape her mind in the future. There is no such thing as a neutral home background. The way that we arrange the home to begin with will decide largely how the child views reading and education as an adolescent. If we decide that the Internet is the most important way of getting access to information and don't bother too much with books, then this is harming the chances of the child attending university in later years. It is these choices, often made by parents years before the birth of their children, which are the real and hidden curriculum which determines the child's academic attainment in later life.

Coercion and choice

Babies and small children have an enormous desire to learn things and find out. Later on in life, this 'learning' will often become a separate thing from their everyday life, an attitude which school encourages. With home education, it is possible to prevent that and ensure that 'learning', 'play' and 'everyday life' do not become separate and distinct things. This longing to learn is rather like a mighty river. We do not create it, let alone make it happen through any external coercion! All that we do is guide it into various directions; harness it if you will. All parents do this, even those most devoted to the principle of autonomous education. Whether a child watches television and learns the names of the tellytubbies, or if she is given huge letters to play with and learns their names, the direction of her learning will be dictated by the environment in which she grows up. Giving her free choice is an illusion. Her choices are made within the context of the environment which we as parents have chosen to make for her. if there are plenty of attractive children's books on a low bookshelf within easy reach of a baby, then she might choose to take a book and look at it. if there are no books in the house, then that choice is denied her. Or perhaps there are books, but they are expensive books like encyclopaedias, which are kept out of reach and can only be looked at under supervision of the parents. If the television is left on all day, then she may gravitate towards it in preference to other activities. This too is an environment which has been created for her by the parents.

In other words, giving a child free choice in learning and the activities which she chooses can only be done within the environment which her parents have chosen for her. Since we create the environment; it is we who dictate her choices, or at least the range of her choices. This is rather analogous to the Marxist view that the political consciousness of the masses is dictated by their living conditions and the society in which they find themselves. They are not really free to make sensible choices. Even the most autonomously educated child is being moulded and guided by her parents into the directions which they hope she will take. This is done by ensuring that her very consciousness is shaped by the environment which they have engineered to this end.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The dark side of John Holt!

I have always had something of a soft spot for those organisations having a name which is impossible to oppose. The Pro-life movement, for example. Who could possibly be against this? What would that make you; pro-death? I have been reading up recently about another such group, Taking Children Seriously. Well I hope that all of us as parents do this! In fact I actually take children, within their limitations, a good deal more seriously than I do most adults. I find their opinions more interesting, I prefer talking to them and I have far more patience with them than I do for adults, most of whom I find very slow and uninspiring company. I have for a while been planning on writing a post about Taking Children Seriously, but usually get sidetracked. I am afraid that this has happened once again, this time by the very first words which caught my eye as soon as I went onto the website of this rather unusual movement.

A few days ago, I put up a link to an article about TCS. To summarise, those adhering to this philosophy feel that we should treat children as being rational beings in precisely the way that we do in general other fellow human beings. We should not seek to dominate them or impose our will upon them, any more than we would upon an adult. This is all fair enough. I have never had any use for those who feel able to strike children with impunity or even to grab hold of them and drag them by main force from one place to another. Regular readers will also know that my only concern in the debate on home education is the rights of the children involved. I couldn't care less about the imaginary rights of their parents! It might have been supposed that I would have felt a good deal of sympathy with the followers of Taking Children Seriously. So I did in the past, before I actually read the sort of things which David Deutsch and Sarah Fitz-Claridge, the founders of the movement, have to say.

Before I go on, I must mention a curious thing, which was also touched upon in the article to which I posted a link. That is that people who follow this philosophy often comment online about matters relating to childrearing and education without specifically mentioning TCS. This is because it is a controversial approach and many people simply dismiss anybody connected with it as a being a bit of a crank. One has to read between the lines and look for phrases such as 'common preference' and 'Popperian epistemology' in order to identify those who adhere to this school of parenting.

A difficulty about Taking Children Seriously is that taking the advice of its founders could end up under extreme circumstances in killing your child. On the website is a piece by David Deutsch which explores that dilemma faced by parents whose toddlers refuse to be strapped into car seats. I have had a good deal of experience of this actually. One of my daughters would have the most spectacular tantrums about being strapped into the car seat when she was two. It made no odds. We still did it. This is because a two year old cannot possibly appreciate the fact that she might end up flying through the windscreen of the car and being killed if there were a car crash. This is quite wrong according to David Deutsch; the correct approach being either to abandon the car journey or allow the child to remain in the moving vehicle unrestrained.

Now to John Holt! I am sure that readers are dying to here about his dark side. What could it be? Was he really a secret kiddy fiddler? Did he beat his wife? Spank his children? Well no, none of those actually. It's a shame, because this might have raised him in my estimation a little. He always strikes me as the most irritatingly bland and pompous individual with his interminable, folksy anecdotes about the children he has met. Hearing that he used knock his kids about would have made him more human somehow. In fact all that he did was to express regret that some child chose school over home education. Oh and he used punishment and threats to keep the kids in his classroom quiet. Even this proved to be a shocking revelation because I can't see him doing anything of the sort and having read all his books, I am sure that I would have remembered this. In fact it was just that he used to write a big Q on the blackboard and this as the signal for the class that he wished them to quieten down a little. What a bastard! It's next door to child abuse!

I recommend readers to go the Taking Children Seriously website and read some of the stuff there. I shall be writing something a little more detailed in a day or two about this.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Three women

Yesterday an adherent of the Taking Children Seriously movement made a few comments here. I have for some while been toying with the idea of making a post about Taking Children Seriously. Disciples of Taking Children Seriously seldom seem to announce themselves as openly as this person did, preferring generally to limit themselves to making coded hints about their ideology. Phrases to watch out for include 'common preference', 'Popperian epistemology' and any reference to the inherent rationality of children. Another characteristic of the followers of Sarah Fitz-Claridge and David Deutsch, the founders of this movement is that however gentle they may be with their children they are like ferocious tigers when verbally defending the doctrine. I must marshal my arguments and prepare carefully if I am to say anything at all about this!

I want today just to reflect upon the wisdom of allowing children and young people to make decisions about their lives. I shall do this by talking of three adult women known to me personally and their reactions in later life to the decisions which their parents allowed them to make. This is not meant to prove anything; these are only personal anecdotes. Rather, it is to get people to think about the wisdom of allowing children too great a degree of autonomy in their lives.

The first woman is now in her fifties. She was more or less a contemporary of mine in the late sixties and early seventies, although a few years younger than me. Most teenage girls at that time had to go be pretty cunning about having sex with their boyfriends. They would tell their parents that they were going round Mary's house to revise for their GCEs and then instead go to a boyfriend's house. Because a lot of families did not have telephones in those days, the chances of being rumbled were low. The parents of one fourteen year old girl were very laid back and progressive and hated hypocrisy and underhanded dealing of this sort. The also fancied themselves very liberated and 'with it' about sex. They told their daughter that if she was going to have sex with a boy, she must tell them and not keep it a secret. There was, after all nothing shameful about sex! They even helped her with contraception. She was allowed to have a boyfriend stay over before her fifteenth birthday. This led to a succession of lovers and she became pregnant at sixteen. Obviously, because things were so free and easy, she had sex a lot more than her friends and therefore had more chance of becoming pregnant. When her friends went off to university at eighteen, she was living in a council house with what was then called an illegitimate baby.

One might think that this woman would have been grateful to her parents for their progressive and right on attitude to sex. She was not and this became the most awful grudge against them in later years as she became herself an adult. Even now, she is bitter about this and blames her parents for the fact that she did not go to university like her friends. She says that at that age she was a child and it was her parents duty to protect her. She believes strongly that they failed in this.

The other two cases are more trivial. One is woman whose dentist recommended when she was twelve that she have braces fitted to her teeth to prevent them protruding. At that time, forty years ago, braces were far less common than they are today and many girls in particular hated them passionately. She made such a fuss about the idea, that her mother told her that if she didn't want them, then she need not. As the child grew older, the teeth stuck out even more until she looked like Bugs Bunny. This led to her becoming very self-conscious about smiling, which affected her life a good deal. She had remedial work done in her thirties. Her mother told her at that time that it had been her decision not to have braces, to which she retorted crisply, 'I was a child. You should have made me'.

The final example is of a girl who was learning to play the piano. Like all children, she hated playing scales and practising. She used to moan about this to her mother, who told her that if she did not like doing it, then she could give up the piano. This was unexpected, but having been complaining so much about it, the girl felt that she could not do otherwise than agree to do give up the piano. She still, many years later, regrets that she did not continue with the piano and carry on learning. She too has a bit of a grudge and thinks that her mother should have been firmer with her.

As I said, these stories are not proof of anything. They indicate though that even when a parent feels that she is respecting her child's wishes and allowing her to make her own decisions, there might still be unpleasant and wholly unexpected consequences. Often, children get into the way of complaining about things and trying to assert their wishes. It can be disconcerting and a little alarming when their parents take them at their word and allow them to decide about things which may have serious implications for them in the future.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Talking with lions

Wittgenstein famously claimed that even if a lion could talk, we would not be able to understand what it said. By this he meant not that it would speak in a foreign language, but that the experience of being a lion would be so different from that of being a human that the same words would mean completely different things to the lion and the human. I have been reminded of this recently when people have been debating the Child Risk Assessment Matrix, a checklist that the Metropolitan Police use when investigating supposed cases of abuse. A number of risk factors are listed, including 'co-sleeping' and being 'home educated'.

For almost everybody in the world of home education, those two expressions have very clear meanings. For the average member of a Child Abuse Investigation Team or social worker investigating possible sexual abuse, they also have very clear meanings. Unfortunately, the meanings that the two groups have are so absolutely different that meaningful dialogue is rendered all but impossible!

Let us begin with 'co-sleeping'. To me and probably every other normal parent, this means the practice of allowing a baby or small child to sleep in the parents' bedroom, sometimes actually in their bed. What could possibly be wrong with this? How dare the police suggest that it could be a risk factor for child abuse! The problem is that police officers investigating child abuse are not encountering normal people. In their world, things are a little bit different. Let us think a bit first about co-sleeping. Like many parents, we had the baby in the bedroom with us. It was reassuring to be able to reach down to the Moses basket in the middle of the night and touch my baby. Surely this can't be regarded as a risk of child abuse! Well no, and no police officer or social worker would even bother to note such a thing on any checklist. However, let's suppose that a little girl of five is still sharing her mother's bed. Now let's imagine that there is a stepfather to whom the child is not related. Is this OK? Well yes. It might just raise eyebrows though. What about a girls of eleven or twelve sleeping next to an adult male to whom she is not related? Is that OK? This is where 'co-sleeping' gets a little tricky!

We have two friends, both single mothers, whose daughters shared their bed until teenage years. It was a habit that did not stop. Nothing wrong with that, I have heard of other mothers and daughters living together where this happened, so it's not that unusual. I have also heard of a case, via a social worker friend in another part of the country of the following. A young mother lived with her thirteen year-old daughter. They shared the bed, because the daughter's room was used as storage space for various bits of junk. The mother acquired a boyfriend slightly younger than her; he was twenty four. Almost incredibly, the thirteen year old girl continued to share the bed! The mother was called away to some family crisis for a week and the twenty four-year old man and the thirteen year-old girl continued to share the bed. What, you think this a dangerous situation? Shame on you! Are you really saying that 'co-sleeping' can be a risk factor in child abuse? The fact that I heard about this from a social worker probably tells readers the direction this particular case of co-sleeping took.

This then is lions talking to humans. A police checklist mentions 'co-sleeping' and a home educating parent becomes outraged because she thinks that the police are hinting that having her baby sleep in the same bedroom as a parent is abusive. The police though are talking about young teenage girls sharing a bed with an adult male to whom they are not related.

Precisely the same semantic difficulty arises with the expression 'home education'. How on earth did that find its way onto this checklist for risk factors? Again, the two groups are speaking a different language. For home educating parents, home education mean parents keeping their own children with them and allowing them to learn at home and in the community. How could this be more risky than sending them to school? Police officers and social workers though are dealing with scenarios like the following. A twelve year old girl is de-registered from school because the family live in a cottage in the countryside from where it takes ages to get to the school. The girl does not really receive much of an education from her mother and her mother's boyfriend, but since the primary objective was saving them trouble and avoiding a prosecution for truancy, this does not really matter. The boyfriend has a son aged twenty. A twelve or thirteen year-old girl spending all day with a group of other kids of the same age as a certain risk of being drawn into an abusive relationship. A child of the same age who is spending all day alone in a remote cottage with a virile twenty year old man to whom she is not related has another sort of risk level. If the parents are out all day, then this risk increases.

Again, when social workers or police officers are talking of 'home education', it is the sort of situation above that they are thinking of. Not a single mother teaching her seven year-old at home because she is passionately devoted to the idea of home education.

There is not the least chance of some home educating parents ever reaching a truce with local authorities, social workers, Barnardo's or the police. The reason for this is that they are simply speaking the same language but meaning utterly different things by the words which they are using. We already know from Garham Stuart that new regulations relating to home education are going to be drawn up. I can see that without a shadow of a doubt that some time within the next few months, there is going to be another huge and unnecessary explosion of anger from certain home educators about this. It is rather like watching a Greek tragedy, where one sees well ahead of the characters what is about to occur.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Debating philosophy

I have been pondering lately the extent to which a certain type of home educator finds it impossible to separate abstract philosophies from those expounding them. I discuss education with many people, practically everybody I meet and know in fact. My views often differ radically from those of the people to whom I talk. Some of my best friends are teachers, for instance, and they do not really approve of the idea of home education. Others are social workers and they have reservations about the practice from a safeguarding viewpoint. I often meet teachers and social workers whom I don't know very well and I talk about education with them as well. Almost without exception, all the parents I know send their children to school and nursery. Despite these great differences of opinion, I find myself able to discuss the topic of home education amicably and am able to keep the ideas themselves quite separate from the person expressing them. In other words, there is no animosity involved and even though we argue strongly about home education, there is never any ill feeling. How very different from the situation when trying to discuss home education objectively with people on the Internet!

Part of the problem when discussing home education on the Internet is that people are typically more aggressive than they would be if they were talking face to face. This is common to all topics talked about online; it is not restricted to home education. The fact that people wish to conceal their names does not help. Somehow the anonymity encourages individuals to make scurrilous attacks on others without fear of any unpleasant consequences. Everybody feels braver if hiding behind a mask. As I say, a lot of this is common to all debates on the Internet, but even taking all this into account, there do seem to be some remarkably bad tempered and aggressive people in the world of home education! I am not thinking so much now of the lists such as HE-UK, but whenever and wherever home education crops up, there always seems to be a really angry person ready to post something sharp and confrontative. I see this on the comments sections of online articles a lot.

The impression one gets is that many of these people take criticism of their educational philosophy as a personal attack. This is a bit strange. Many people have over the years criticised the idea of my home educating my daughter. I have never seen this as a personal thing, as a criticism of me. I for my part have said things to others about the schools that their children attend, again without this being seen as an assault upon them personally. With home educators though, things are often different. An attack on the idea of home education is an attack upon them. I really struggle to see this point of view. After all, some autonomous educators talk about 'coercive' learning and teaching being 'imposed' upon a child. This is a ludicrous misrepresentation of structured teaching, but it does not bother me; I don't get angry about it. I have seen some pretty grotesque distortions of the early education of children as well, made by autonomous educators. One could say, if one wished to use the terminology that some of these parents affect, that these people are 'lying' about structured teaching and spreading untruthful ideas about conventional education. I suppose in a way they may well be, but it does not particularly worry me. I don't think any teacher or highly structured educator would get worked up about such things. Autonomous educators on the other hand do get worked up about it if somebody says something which they feel to be a misrepresentation of their chosen educational methods, it is a personal affront!

A few days ago Kelly Green on her blog claimed that I was a government advisor; a suggestion which has provided a good deal of innocent amusement in the Webb household. When I said on here that I regarded this sort of invention as being qualitatively different from a mistake or exaggeration about an educational philosophy, one of the people who comment on here would not accept this. If she was being honest, and I have no reason to suppose otherwise, she regards any distortion or misrepresentation of her favoured educational philosophy as being worse than if somebody had fabricated a story about her private life. In other words, her personal life and her philosophy are so closely entwined that an attack on one is every bit as offensive as an attack on the other.

So strange do I find this attitude towards educational techniques, that I have to pinch myself to make sure that I am not dreaming when I talk about this. I am not a fan of synthetic phonics. Can it really be the case that among the advocates of this method of teaching literacy there are individuals who would rather have people make up and spread lies about their personal life than see any criticism of the teaching of reading by phonics? Can I for my part imagine that I would sooner have people make up silly stories about me than hear them saying bad things about structured teaching? This is so peculiar that I can think of no parallel in any other type of educational philosophy. The only comparison I can make is with members of certain religions and cults whose beliefs become so important to them that they become one with their life as a whole. All I can say is that using the Look and Say method of teaching reading was never that much a part of my very identity and that when people talk foolishly about 'coercive' teaching, I do not find this the same as somebody inventing fantastic stories about my professional background.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Finding things out

Readers with good memories will recollect that back in March and April last year there was a lot of speculation about the possibility that Graham Badman might recommend that home educators should adhere to the National Curriculum. Messages about this went whizzing back and forth on the Internet lists such as HE-UK and EO. I too was curious about this and so I got in touch with Elizabeth Greene at the DCSF and asked if I could meet with Graham Badman. On April 28th, I duly had a conversation with him. Almost the first question I asked was, 'Is it true that you are planning to recommend that the National Curriculum is imposed upon home educators? A lot of parents are worried about this'. He was very surprised to hear this and assured me that there was nothing of the sort planned. He then enquired in a puzzled way why if parents were so worried about this, none had asked him about it. He had by that time met many home educators, including a whole bunch down in Kent. Not one had said a word about this to him. I at once posted this information on the lists.

The reason for this brief historical excursion is that I am seeing a similar situation develop now with the Metropolitan Police Child/Comprehensive Risk Assessment Matrix or CRAM for short. People have been posting messages in Canada, harassing hapless magazine editors, firing off freedom of Information requests, posting frenziedly on Internet lists and I don't know what all else. Now this is not a new tool, it has been in general use since April 2009 and there is quite a complex set of instructions to accompany it. Anybody who wishes to know about this tool and how it works can simply telephone the police and ask. This is of course the one thing which nobody thought of doing; ringing the man who actually wrote the thing and asking him about it. I sometimes think that many home educators prefer to do things the hard way. Making Freedom of Information requests before you have exhausted all other avenues of enquiry is usually counter-productive. This is because as soon as one makes the request, you can be sure of two things. Firstly, the whole process will take a lot longer than if you simply ask about it on the telephone. Secondly, you can be absolutely sure that you will be provided with the very minimum amount of information necessary for the agency to comply with the letter of the law. If the person at the office can leave out some vital bit of information, he will do so. Now I have no objection to using this process if I can't get information any other way, but that seldom happens. In other words, I regard that sort of thing as the last resort, not the first response. In general, you will find out a lot more by asking in a straightforward and open way about what you wish to find out.

So many home educating parents seem to behave in this way, fighting needlessly and demanding answers hysterically, that it seems almost to be a specific syndrome. Have a look at this:

A classic case indeed! Why on earth should we begin by 'demanding' answers from the Metropolitan Police? Might it not be better policy to ring them up for a chat and just ask them? And what precisely is the purpose of being 'angry'? Wouldn't we be more likely to get somebody to take us seriously if we were calm and reasonable? Very odd.

It is as though they enjoy being a persecuted minority and that this somehow adds a thrill to their lives and perhaps gives them a cause with which they can identify. Far more exciting to struggle against a monolithic, faceless and uncaring bureaucracy by angrily demanding answers from them! Where would be the fun in just telephoning somebody like a normal citizen and having a friendly chat when you want to find something out? It would take all the pleasure out of the thing! I was reminded of this while looking again at Kelly Green's blog. As readers will know, I posted a couple of perfectly reasonable comments on there and her response was to bar me from the place entirely. It's her blog of course, but I found her explanation revealing. She said of me, ' He hadn’t targeted me until now, perhaps because I am a foreigner,'. What a truly wierd thing to say! Is this really how some home educators feel about comments from anybody who might disagree with them? After all, there have been not a few of those here! I have never thought that I am being targeted though. Bob Collier in Australia has commented here a few times. Imagine if I said after he had posted a comment, 'He hadn’t targeted me until now, perhaps because I am a foreigner,'. This is the language of paranoia.

Actually, rather than paranoia, this is more the language of the spy thriller. This is a clue as to the motivation of some home educators. They enjoy the battle for its own sake and are always on the lookout for some new drama in which they may become embroiled, something which will confirm them in their belief that they are standing alone against an implacable and all powerful foe! One gets the feeling that these are people who relish the feeling of belonging to a select few, a kind of secret society which is set apart from the rest of society. I suppose that is the way that Freemasons feel and other secret societies. I read with enormous pleasure last year accounts from home educators who were planning to 'go underground', flee the country or live on canal boats in order to escape from the socialist dictatorship. Gosh, it all sounded so exciting that I was almost tempted to play at being a refugee myself! Almost, but not quite. After all, I had my daughter's education to consider. This is the real problem when parent play silly beggars like this; it is their children's education which is likely to suffer. All the time that they spend being angry, making pointless Freedom of Information requests and fighting the authorities is time which could be better spent in providing an education for their children. There is no harm at all playing secret societies like this, many people like these games, including as I said the Freemasons. As long as it remains an entertaining hobby, then that is fine. When it begins to take over one's life, then perhaps it is time to stop and think about matters a little. One sees so much about these things on the HE Internet lists that one gets the impression that this is the main feature of life for some home educating parents. Perhaps once in a while it would do no harm for these people to remember that the real purpose of home education is not fighting the government, police and local authorities, but educating their children.

Home education as a risk factor in the Child Risk Assessment Matrix (CRAM)

I note that a number of people are now getting worked up about this, including Mike Fortune-Wood of Home Education UK. He tried to make a Freedom of Information request to Community Care magazine, but not surprisingly, they sent him off with a flea in his ear. They were still laughing about that in the office an hour later. His latest communication trying to find out about the CRAM document contains the extraordinary phrase, 'it behoves of yourself to explain your thinking'! I wonder if this is how he talks in real life? I imagine him at the breakfast table with his wife, saying, 'It behoves of yourself to pass me the marmalade dear'.

Anyway, his latest thoughts on the subject is that, 'we need to look into this' Well while others are making Freedom of Information requests, annoying magazine editors and mangling the English language hideously, I thought that I would speak to the man who actually compiled the Child Risk Assessment Matrix and see what he had to say about the matter. It will be remembered that a particular anxiety was that home education had apparently been highlighted in red as a special concern. This all turns out to be a complete mare's nest. The red bits on the CRAM form as reproduced in Community Care are, according to Inspector Tony Kelly who wrote the thing, nothing to do with the document. He thinks that they are just something that has crept in at some point. He certainly did not include them when he put this document together. I asked about the inclusion of home education at all and what he told me was very interesting. The first victim risk factors such as Subject to a Child Protection order and Victim's Injury caused by a Weapon are definite risk factors. The final three, Disability, Private Fostering and Home Education, are things which may be risk factors. These three are to be treated separately from the others. In training, it is emphasised that disability or home education are not of themselves risk factors at all, but when combined with some of the genuine risk factors may be significant. So rather than home education being seen as a particularly dangerous risk factor, as some had feared, it is not really seen as a risk factor at all.

I am bound to say that I have no idea at all why people have to mess around with Freedom of Information requests and so on with a simple thing like this. I rang the Metropolitan Police, asked who had written the CRAM and then asked for his telephone number. After that I just rang him and had a perfectly friendly chat about it. The whole exercise took less than ten minutes. If more home educators adopted this sort of low key approach, then they might get better results generally.

Home education and co-sleeping as risk factors in child abuse

The latest piece of paranoia to start a panic among home educators is the Metropolitan Police Child Abuse Investigation Command's tool for detecting the abuse of children and instigating action before a greater tragedy befalls the child, i.e. she is murdered. This document is called the Child Risk Assessment matrix or CRAM for short and it may be seen here:

Now there are two objections to CRAM from the point of view of some home educating parents. Firstly, it gives 'home education' as a risk factor, thus putting a home educated child automatically on a par with one who has a child protection plan or is displaying sexualised behaviour. Secondly, co-sleeping is also suggested as a risk factor. Some people are already becoming hysterical about this and claiming that this is yet another attack upon home education in this country and that the government is now trying to peer into our bedrooms and criticise our sleeping arrangements

I am in two minds about this approach by the police. On the one hand, it does seem outrageous that the simple fact of home education should be regarded as a risk factor when investigating possible cases of child abuse. Similarly co-sleeping, the practice of allowing babies and small children to share the same bedroom as their parents, is usually harmless enough. Why on earth should that be a risk factor? The problem is that many of those who are raising these objections come from comfortable, happy and well educated families. They simply cannot imagine anybody neglecting their children or having sex with a toddler. In short, they have had no experience of the sort of families which CRAM is designed to be used with.

The home education bit is probably more a matter of semantics than anything else. The police do not really think that those educating their children at home are any more at risk than other children. 'Home education' is a convenient, short phrase which means 'not attending school'. It is perfectly true that Victoria Climbie, for example, was not home educated. It is also quite true that she was not at school. It is this which has been identified as being a factor in some of the high profile cases upon which the CRAM document is based. Similarly, nobody is suggesting that co-sleeping is harmful in itself. It can be though, if it were to continue past puberty say or if a four year old were to be in the room regularly while two or three adults were engaging in noisy sex. One can see how this might lead to sexualised behaviour as well.

I think that part of the difficulty here is that a lot of home educators live such respectable and stable lives with their children that they cannot imagine what the police have to deal with. These risk factors are not taken in isolation, but enable the police to build up a picture of a child's overall circumstance. For example, alongside 'home education' as a risk factor is having a disability. this does not of course mean that if the police visit a home where a child is in a wheelchair that they will immediately contact social services and warn that a child is at risk! How could home education or co-sleeping be relevant in this context? Let us suppose that a visit is made to a home where a twelve year-old girl is sharing a bedroom with a man and woman who are having a sexual relationship. Let us further suppose that the man is not related to her and that there are also signs of substance abuse. If on top of that the child were to be displaying sexualised behaviour and not attending school, then eyebrows might certainly be raised. This would certainly be a family where 'home education' and co-sleeping were relevant factors when looking at the lifestyle of a family. It all depends on circumstance.

In short, I can see why the CRAM tool might seem alarming to some parents, but I do not see it so myself. I have a suspicion though that we shall be hearing a good deal more about this document in the near

Sunday, 19 September 2010

A final word about Kelly Green and Gold

I simply had to draw attention to this. As I remarked yesterday, Kelly Green has banned my comments from her blog. Well fair enough, it is after all her blog and she has a perfect right not to want a smart alec like me hanging round there! However children, have a look at this and see if you can see what's wrong with this picture. Both quotes are from Kelly Green in the last twenty four hours. The second reference is to me.

'It’s my blog, and expresses my own personal point of view, and the truth, as close as I can get to it.'

'He was an advisor to Graham Badman and the Department of Children, Schools and Families over the course of the Badman Review,'

What a breathtaking piece of cheek! If that's as close as she can get to the truth then she really needs to try a little harder! And of course the best of it is that she will not even let me correct this. I don't think that I need to say anything more about this dreadful woman.

Nailing an old canard (again!)

Every time I think that I have dealt finally with the story of how I lied to get onto various home education Internet lists and then abused their trust by publishing newspaper articles containing information taken from these lists, I find that after a month or two somebody tries to start it up again. Yesterday, somebody who comments here regularly said;

'if my memory serves me correctly, you were barred from HE-UK because you put material from the site in the public domain without the permission of the poster or the list owner.'

This is of course absolute nonsense. I joined the HE-UK list in 2007. I joined using my real name and personal email address, although it would have saved me a lot of trouble had I done what everybody else there seems to do and used a false name. At the end of July 2009 I had a couple of articles published in the Independent and the Times Educational Supplement about home education. here is the one from the Independent;

There is nothing at all in this article apart from what is freely available to any member of the public on open websites. I was keenly aware that I should not use anything which I had learned from the lists and so restricted what I wrote to information from the public domain. I quoted from an account of autonomous education found on the Education Otherwise site. It is here;

Soon after this was published Mike Fortune-Wood, the owner of the HE-UK site, posted a comment on the online version of the article in which he claimed that I had lied to gain admission to his list. This was not true of course and he was too ashamed to sign his own name to this comment, preferring to use the pseudonym Maesk123. He also included a post which I had made on the list. Up until that point, I had assumed that all comments which people posted on this list were private and meant only to be read by those on the list. Other members of this list then began to publish my comments from the list in various places, including writing to the editors of national newspapers with quotes from them. Later on, things which I had posted on this list began to appear on blogs and websites across the world! On October 7th 2009 Wendy Crickard posted a message on the HE-UK list asking for details of previous posts of mine made to the list. She explained that she wished to show these to Linda Waltho MP, who was sitting on the select committee.

One might have thought that if anybody on this list was really concerned about the privacy of messages which were posted there, then at least one person would have raised an objection to this. In fact Janet Ford, another of those who seems to be ashamed of her own name, posting as Mehetabel, started a new thread called, '[HE-UK] Simon Webbs previous posts for Wendy :-‏' She then listed every post of mine that she could find, so that others could pass them on to MPs and anywhere else.

It was at this point that I realised that the posts which people made on the HE-UK list were not really regarded as being private at all. It was clear from the fact that nobody objected on the list to all this, that all the members found this it quite acceptable to use posts in this way and to publish them anywhere. From that time on I have not bothered at all about the privacy of this list.

I hope that it is now plain that I did not put anything in my two articles from any of the home education lists to which I belonged when I wrote them. I hope it is also clear that when one finds that all those on a private list, from the list owner downwards, are perfectly content to publish private messages across the Internet, in national newspapers and even submit them as evidence to a select committee, then the idea of a 'private' list is no longer really possible. It is clear that private messages on such a list are really regarded as public property. I have behaved accordingly ever since this happened. I do hope that this will be the last I have to write about this topic.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Kelly Green and Gold

I have remarked before upon the way that anybody disagreeing with the prevailing orthodoxy among home educators tends to be shouted down and where possible suppressed. The only reason of course that I began this blog in the first place was because I had been barred from all the Internet lists on home education! One gets the feeling that only those who follow a certain ideology and have a particular attitude towards matters such as the Badman Review and so on are welcome on those lists. I have also found the same thing happening with some blogs; I comment in a perfectly courteous and good natured fashion and a few hours later my comment is deleted. Since both the list owners and those keeping the blogs are keen to brandish their libertarian credentials, I find this odd and a little inconsistent.

The latest example of this is on the blog Kelly Green and Gold. I was surprised when reading the submissions to the select committee last year to find one from somebody who was not a citizen of this country and did not even live here. I must confess, I found this strange. It would be as though I had heard of a government enquiry in Uganda or South Africa and not liking the law that was being proposed, decided to submit evidence of my own in an attempt to influence their legislature. It would be a bit of a cheek if I were to do so!

Somebody recommended to me that I read the blog written by Kelly, the American/Canadian who submitted the statement to the select committee. I did so yesterday and found that she had been posting about two things which I have noticed before being said by parents in this country. Firstly, there was a gloating reference to a teacher in her country and an education welfare officer in ours who had been discovered to be using child pornography. She went on to link this to the supposed attempt to pass a law making it possible for local authority officers to see children alone, without their parents being present. This was a reference to Schedule 1 of the Children, Schools and Families Bill 2009. The inference was clear; if such a law had been enacted, home educated children would have been at risk from paedophiles working for the local authority.

Now while it is quite true that Graham Badman suggested this, there was never any realistic prospect of the idea finding its way onto the statue books. It would have required a wholesale revision of our common law! Badman is not a lawyer though and this was just one of his ideas. When the CSF Bill was actually published, it was made clear that any such interview would only take place with the agreement of both the child and her parents. It was also made plain that this sort of interview was not intended to be a routine event, but rather was something which might have happened only in very rare circumstances. I pointed this out in comments on Kelly's blog. Here is her post, with my comments;

Her response was swift. She posted a piece referring to me as a troll or monster and saying that any further comments of mine would be deleted at once. I have noticed before that many home educators call anybody who disagrees with them 'trolls'. I have even been accused of trolling on my own blog, which is a truly surreal notion. I have not yet, even by the most dedicated autonomous educator, been described as a monster though! Her post about me may be found here;

I answered, again in a good humoured fashion saying;

'Dear me, harsh words indeed! There were certainly problems with Schedule 1 of the Children, Schools and Families Bill 2009, but children being seen alone by local authority officers without the presence of their parents was not one of them. I felt this was worth pointing out. You say that I am ‘ well-known in the home education community for these kinds of tricks’, but I am probably better known for being a lifelong, ideological home educator, whose own daughter never spent a single day in school. As such, I am very concerned about home education and do not feel that it is helpful to perpetuate misleading rumours about things like the CSF Bill, such as that it would have given education workers the right to see children alone without their parents. Including this inaccurate piece of information in a post mentioning paedophile teachers and education workers would naturally lead to the inference that these two topics were connected.'

True to her word, this was deleted almost immediately. This leaves all subsequent people commenting free to say further misleading things to which I am unable to respond. I find this particularly staggering in view of the fact that this blog is touting a self-published book of Kelly's called A matter of Conscience - Education as a fundamental freedom. This is precisely the kind of libertarian slant to which I referred above. Home educators often claim that they are pursuing their lifestyle in the name of freedom. Part of the book deals with media bias and what is described as 'combating uneducated, unsubstantiated opinions and hate speech about home-based education'. That anybody could write about these topics and then react to the views of a home educator with whom she apparently disagrees by calling the person a monster or troll and then refusing to allow any response says all that I need to know about this woman! 'Monster'? Sounds a bit like hate speech to me......

Thursday, 16 September 2010

More about maternal deprivation

Yesterday's post led to an alarming degree of harmony and agreement with the views which I expressed. This is disturbing and I hope it will not become a regular event. I am still looking at the idea of maternal deprivation and disrupted contact with the small child's attachment figure, which is as I said yesterday almost invariably the mother. I know that most home educating parents would sooner sell their children to a vivisectionist than allow anybody to conduct psychological tests or assessments upon them, but even without formal testing I think that it is possible to see some good effects of being close to the mother during childhood, rather than being sent off to school. These centre around the relationship which older home educated children seem to have with their parents.

We looked yesterday at some of the ill effects of maternal deprivation. Bowlby and others documented the stages of a child's reactions to being separated from his mother. There are tears and protests, followed by listlessness and depression. After a while the child becomes detached emotionally and this leads observers to suppose that he is happy with his situation. He is not though and blames his mother for the situation in which he finds himself. This produces in later years hostility towards the person whom he blames for the separation, that is to say the mother.

One of the strange things that I have noticed when talking to friends about their relationships with their children is the number of them who seem at their wits end during adolescence. There seem to be shouting matches between them and their children, even shoving, grabbing and the occasional blow. All say that they sense a lack of respect for them and that their children speak to them with contempt. I am honestly baffled by this and it runs counter both to my own experience and to common sense. One would think, and I have certainly found it to be the case, that as children grow older it should be more and more possible to reason with them and hold sensible conversations. It is true of course that teenagers often get irritable and that their choices are not always the best, but surely one would expect a person who was almost an adult to be a more reasonable being than one who is just a child? This does not seem to be the case with those of my friends' children who are, or have been, at school.

Now I know some parents whose children have not been to school and I am in contact with others by telephone or email. In every case, they report that they get on perfectly well with their adolescent offspring. Sure, there are disagreements as there are bound to be in any family, but all say that it is actually easier as their children are older, rather than harder. I would be interested to know what readers hear have found as their children have become teenagers.

Of course, not all home educators have taught their children from birth. Some of the children will have been to school. This does not seem to make any difference to the generally affectionate relations which seem to survive adolescence. I can see why that should be as well. Some at least of the typically horrible behaviour of children who have spent all their lives at school and nursery can be interpreted as anger and resentment at their mother for not protecting them; in effect they feel that their mother abandoned them. This resentment can, as Bowlby observed, manifest later in various ways including the development of an anti-social personality. Children who have been bullied or having other problems at school and then been deregistered, will surely look upon their mothers in precisely the opposite light. Instead of being subconsciously bitter that their mothers abandoned them or failed to protect them, they will be grateful to their mothers for rescuing them.

As I say, my own personal experience is that my daughter's adolescence seems to be pretty smooth and a natural continuation of childhood. Nobody is shouting here or going mad about anything. This cannot be because I am a particularly patient and tolerant person; I am anything but. I think that it is probably because my daughter knows that I love her and enjoy her company and that this has always been the case. She has been shocked by the way that some of her friends talk about their parents. They say that they hate them. I really would be surprised to hear that this is the case with many home educated children.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Separation anxiety and the psychological health of schooled children

I always find something a little sad about September, not least because of the sight of all those children returning to school. I cannot help noticing that the little ones attending primary school seem really little these days. This is not just one of those things that happen as one grows older, like policemen looking younger; the age at which children start formal education genuinely has dropped over the years.

The legal situation in the United Kingdom is that children have to begin full-time education in the term after their fifth birthdays. Hardly any child is enrolled at school that late though. It has become a universal practice for children to be offered a place at school a year earlier than this. Subtle pressure is placed upon parents to accept these offers, because it is made plain that if they don't take the place now, it may not be available the following year. This is all of a piece with the official notion in this country that children are actually better off in institutional care than they are at home with their mothers and fathers. Socially caring governments announce proudly that every four year old shall be entitled to a school place, every three year old a nursery place and eventually all two year olds will be guaranteed the right to nursery or day care. I suppose the eventual aim is that the baby should be whisked away from the mother almost as soon as it is born and taken off to day-care. This is of course the situation in Sweden.

I have been re-reading some of John Bowlby's work lately. Bowlby of course developed Attachment Theory and invented the term' maternal deprivation'. Briefly, he suggested that a human baby, like other young animals, forms an attachment with one person for the first few years of life. This person is, for purely biological reasons, usually the mother. If the connection between the child and this attachment figure is broken or disrupted during the first five or six years of life, Bowlby found that there could be serious and irreversible consequences. These ranged from delinquency and depression through to reduced intelligence and increased aggression. In cases where the attachment figure is separated entirely from the child, as can happen in long hospital stays and children's homes, he found that the result could be the creation of an affectionless psychopath. He called the feelings of the child on being separated from his mother, 'separation anxiety'.

Now most of Bowlby's work back in the fifties and sixties was with children who had been removed entirely and permanently from their mothers for various reasons such as breakdown of the family and long term illness. He thought that any disruption of the maternal bond was a bad thing, but fifty years ago children remained at home with their mothers until after their fifth birthday and so he did not investigate the type of maternal deprivation with which we have become familiar today. It is always hazardous to postulate a cause and effect relationship for two events based simply upon the fact that one follows the other. There is the risk of falling into the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy of reasoning. Nevertheless, I cannot help but observe that the decreasing age at which small children are regularly separated from their mothers in this country has coincided almost precisely with an increase in rates of delinquency, depression, aggression, antisocial behaviour and various other negative behaviours in young people. If Bowlby was right, and most professionals today believe that he was, then taking a child from her mother regularly at the age of two or three is likely to cause psychological harm in many of them. The earlier this removal from the mother occurs, the more likely is the damage to the child.

Even if we do not subscribe to every detail of John Bowlby's ideas about maternal deprivation, there is a host of other good reasons for not sending two and three year-olds into full-time education and day-care. Small children learn essential skills not from other children but from adults. Skills like how to hold a conversation, for example. A child's cognitive skills are also best developed in the company of an adult and not other children. Thrusting a small child into a group of other children and depriving her of the loving one-to-one care of a parent strikes me on an instinctual level too as a shockingly bad idea!

The idea that a baby should go off to day-care, nursery and school almost as soon as it can breathe has become ingrained in the thinking of early years professionals in this country. While it is true that there are homes where the child is not receiving sufficient stimulation and care and would probably be better off spending the day elsewhere, there is no reason at all to suppose that such homes are particularly common. This wholesale removal of small children from their mothers and fathers on a regular basis and an increasingly young age strikes me as very bad idea for many reasons. I am aware that many home educating parents are fanatically opposed to anything which looks even remotely like formal testing and examination of their children, but I have a strong suspicion that any examination of the psychological health of adolescents who had not been removed from their families in this way might well show significant differences from those who had been hustled off to such institutions during their early childhood.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Letting children choose...

A few days ago I wrote about the idea of giving children and teenagers the facts about things and then letting them make their own choices. I expressed the view that this is the last thing that most parents do and that in general our idea of 'giving them the facts' means launching a ruthless and sophisticated PsyOps campaign in order to bring them into the fold and compel them to adopt our own prejudices about the world. I want today to consider the wisdom of allowing them to make choices about their long term future in the first place, whether or not they access to objective information. In other words, even when they have got hold of the facts, should they be given a free hand in choosing what to do? Should we ask our children if they wish to study for and sit examinations? Should we let them decide whether they attend school or are educated at home?

Anybody with a child or teenager will be familiar with the experience of seeing their child do something dangerous or mad and then asking the child afterwards, 'Why on earth did you do that?' The answer is usually a shrug of the shoulders and perhaps a few words of explanation along the lines of 'I don't know' or 'It seemed like a good idea'. I did any number of stupid things as a teenager. One that sticks in the memory is the day I was walking past a multi-story car-park with some friends. I was fifteen. Without any warning, I suddenly bolted from the group and ran to the car-park. I then climbed up the outside, right to the top. I could not even today, over forty years later, explain why I did this; it just seemed a good idea at the time! I am sure that adult readers will have their own cringe-making memories of doing stupid things at a similar age. These might include girls having unprotected sex with complete strangers, swallowing pills containing unknown substances, getting into a car driven by a drunk person and hitch-hiking home at two in the morning. It's what teenagers do.

The reason that children and teenagers do all sorts of silly and hazardous things is because they do not have the ability which adults have of seeing the probable or possible consequences of their actions. They act now and think later. For a twelve or thirteen year-old, the present is real and the future a vague and meaningless abstraction. A month is long time, a year is an eternity and five years in the future is an inconceivably distant point even to contemplate. This is of course very right and proper. We would not really want our children to be constantly fretting about the future; if they can't live for the present now, whenever can they? This does mean though that they are not really the best people to make plans for five or ten years in the future. We do that better because we are used to it. For us, a ten year plan is quite a manageable chunk of time. After all, it is less than half the term of the average mortgage! Asking a twelve year-old to envisage what he will be doing in ten years, on the other hand, is utterly mad. He cannot possibly know what steps he should be taking at the age of twelve to secure his long term future. We see this very clearly when children at school are choosing their options for GCSEs. Here is some advice given to thirteen and fourteen year-olds in Year 9 at a local secondary school;

' You'll be studying these subjects for the next two years, so it's important that you enjoy doing them. What could be worse than being stuck in a classroom doing a subject you wished you'd left behind?
That said, you should also try and think about the future. Do you need this subject for your future plans such as university or a job?'

This is sheer lunacy! They don't have any future plans for jobs or university at thirteen; not unless they are very weird and atypical children. What sort of factors do these kids really take into consideration when they choose their options? Here are some genuine quotations from actual children in Year 9. 'I wanted to do history 'cause my mates are doing it'. 'I'm not doing RS, I hate that Miss Jones that takes it'. 'Art's easier than geography'. 'I hate French!'.
These are children for Heaven's sake, you can't possibly expect them to make a reasoned decision, weighing up the various pros and cons, considering their future job or university course.

Now I know that we home educating parents have children who are smarter/more sensitive/sensible/thoughtful/artistic/socially aware and so on than schooled children, but all the same, their brains are still wired up in the same haphazard and irrational way as other teenagers. You can't even rely upon them to put their dirty clothes in the washing machine; how on earth can we depend upon them to make serious decisions about their adult life? These decisions are likely to have long lasting effects upon their lives. Studying or not studying for GCSEs, choosing which subjects to study, taking an OU course, that sort of thing

So If allowing our kids to decide is a little too risky, then who on earth should we expect to make choices about their future, including the nature and extent of their education? Wait! I think I know the answer to this one. That would be us as the parents and responsible adults, making the decisions on behalf of our children based upon our superior knowledge and infinitely greater ability to plan ahead. Frankly, the idea of abdicating responsibility for my child's education and allowing her to make the choices at a young age would have struck me as foolhardy and reckless in the extreme. The only sufferer from such a course of action would have been my daughter herself and that alone was good enough reason for not doing it.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Eton is better than home education

I have been thinking about what somebody said here yesterday, which was to the effect that home education is inferior to an education at a private school. The writer expressed the opinion that if he had the money he would gladly send his son to an independent school in preference to educating him at home and specified Eton as his first choice.

Now I have to say at once that I do not agree with the proposition that home education is somehow a poor cousin in the wider world of education. I cannot imagine that my daughter would have done any better at Eton or Roedean than she did at home. In a sense though, this is irrelevant. The fact is that people educate their children at home for reasons that are a good deal more complicated than merely providing a better education for them. This is because most parents have far more wide-reaching ambitions for their children than that should simply be 'educated' efficiently. I am confident in asserting this, because time and again every survey of home educators in this country has come up with many more motives for home education other than that of education alone.

What sort of ambitions do parents have for their children apart from their acquiring a sound knowledge of physics, chemistry, history and so on? I think that we all hope that their children become kind and compassionate. Very few of us would like our children to grow up into greedy, selfish and cruel individuals. For many people, this aspect of childhood development, moral and ethical development, is of greater importance than any academic work. They feel that teaching their children to be decent human beings is something which they can best accomplish at home. I felt precisely the same and if I had to choose between having a kind and good natured child and having one who was very clever but sly and spiteful, then I would choose kindness over brains every time. Fortunately, I have not found intelligence and a compassionate nature to be incompatible with each other, which is a great mercy! Often, parents who are very concerned about this sort of thing worry that spending all day with a bunch of other kids is not likely to be very helpful in the cultivation of a sensitive and thoughtful disposition. Watching groups of teenagers in public these days often puts one in mind of Lord of the Flies.

In fact I have a strong suspicion that very few parents embark upon home education solely for the educational benefits. These benefits may reveal themselves as the education at home progresses, but they are not usually the initial reason why the parents decided upon home education. I also have a suspicion that if most of the parents here were offered the chance to enroll their children at an expensive independent school, perhaps some old relative offered to pay for the child's education, most would refuse without hesitation. I know that I would have done. The truth is that although I know very well that my daughter received an education at least as effective as she would have done at an independent school, there was far more going on with the whole home education business than just learning and examinations. Even had I been persuaded that she would be able to learn as much at a school, I would still have been very reluctant to send her there. As a matter of interest, would any readers send their children to a good independent school if they were given the finance for it? In my case, this is neither idle speculation nor sour grapes. Just down the road in Woodford there are two very good independent schools; Forest and Bancroft's. Both offer scholarships and a couple of my daughter's friends got in like that. I suppose that had I wished, I could have worked on Simone and persuaded her to sit the examination and perhaps take up a place at one of these schools. I briefly toyed with the idea, but it was never a serious consideration.

The change in lifestyle caused by not sending a child to school is so radical that I do not believe anybody except another home educating parent can really appreciate what is involved. While it is quite true that the educational benefits are or can be dramatic, even in the most fanatically structured home, actual teaching takes up only a small part of the time. After all, the kid is likely to be awake for fifteen hours or so each day and you really can't work systematically for more than two or three hours of that time. Home education must therefore be motivated by a good deal more than the desire simply to spend a few hours a day teaching your child.

Home educators in general love their children's company and want to spend a lot of time with them. They wish to be the main influence on their children's development and are especially concerned with what used to be called character building. Whether they are devout Christians or atheist humanists, home educating parents are very keen to transmit their own values and beliefs to their children. They ask their children questions about what they see in the world and watch on the news and then in turn tell their children what they themselves think about things. One might be confident that an independent school would teach chemistry efficiently; I doubt one could expect that the teachers there would take as much interest in cultivating the moral characters of the children in their care!

While it is probably true that maintained schools are inferior educationally to many independent schools, this is for most home educators wholly irrelevant. they do not want their children at school, they want them at home. This is why I would be surprised to see any great enthusiasm among home educators for setting up one of Michael Gove's famous free schools. Perhaps another expression needs to be coined for home education, a phrase which emphasises that education means far more than merely academic work.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Giving children the 'facts'

A few days ago I was writing here of the folly of allowing children to make important decisions about their long term future, arguing that it is far better if adults make decisions on their children's behalf. Several people commented, telling me that they felt that children should be 'given the facts' and allowed to make their own choices. This is such a grotesque idea that I couldn't help chuckling out loud. Giving children the facts! As if any parent ever does such a thing.

The topic under discussion was of course education and the taking of examinations, but the principle is the same whatever 'facts' we are supposedly giving children in order for them to come to their own decision. Whether the subject is further education, racism, health, nuclear power, homophobia or vegetarianism; the last thing any parent supplies or intends to supply are plain facts. Let us take one example and look at it in detail. We won't use education, because I always manage to annoy somebody when I write about this. Perhaps, I had better steer clear of racism and homophobia as well. Let's look at something upon which every parent in the country would agree; the undesirability of our children taking up smoking.

Now there are many reasons why we don't want our children to start smoking, but the chief one is that we don't want them to develop lung cancer. Of course there are many other problems associated with smoking, ranging from bad breath to Buerger's Disease, but without doubt the main fear is of our child dying of cancer as a consequence of cigarettes. So if we suspect that our twelve or thirteen year old daughter might be tempted to experiment with smoking, we tell her that a good reason not to do so is that smoking causes cancer. Now this is so misleading a statement as to be practically a lie, but we persuade ourselves that, as the Jesuits claim, 'If the end is lawful, then the means are likewise lawful'. Are we really giving our child the facts and letting her make her own decision? Not a bit of it. What are the facts?

To begin with a woman who smokes has just over one chance in ten of developing lung cancer in the course of her life. Therefore 90% of women who smoke for the whole of their lives will not get lung cancer. Secondly, one must smoke for at least twenty or thirty years to increase the risk of lung cancer to a statistically significant level. In other words, if a girl starts smoking at fifteen and then smokes until she is forty, she is in no more danger of lung cancer than a non smoker. The blunt statement which practically every parent in the land delivers to her child, 'Smoking causes cancer' is thus revealed to be a deliberately untruthful piece of crude scaremongering. We might truthfully say that under some circumstances smoking might cause cancer, but that the development of the disease is also associated with a large number of factors which we do not yet fully understand. Doesn't really sound as catchy as 'Smoking causes cancer', does it?

If we really wanted to give our teenage daughter the facts, then instead of telling her that 'Smoking causes cancer', we would say something like this;

'Well Mary, you have to bear in mind that the vast majority of women who smoke for the whole of their lives do not develop lung cancer. It is pretty rare and the chances are ten to one against your getting it, no matter how many cigarettes you smoke. Also, you could safely start smoking now and then carry on until you were forty without really increasing your risk of the disease. This is because the development of cancer in this way is also the result of a huge number of other factors unconnected with smoking, such as genetic disposition and other matters, some of which could relate to lifestyle. And remember, if you stop for five years, then your chances of lung cancer drop to the same level as a lifelong non-smoker!'

These are the facts about smoking and the teenage girl. Hands up any parent who would dream of presenting the matter like this, simply setting out the facts and leaving the girl to make up her own mind? Has anybody here ever pointed out to her daughter that the odds of a lifelong female smoker developing lung cancer are ten to one against? None of us do this, with smoking or anything else. Instead, we decide what we think is good for our children and then do what we can to manipulate them psychologically into adopting our view of the case. Vegetarians do this with their children and so do people who disapprove of nuclear power stations. Parents who home educate do not give their children the 'facts' about schools, education and the prospects of getting into university, any more than they give them the 'facts' about smoking. They start instead from a position of knowing what the right view on the question is and feeding their children a selection of biased information and black propaganda so that they too adopt the 'correct' view, i.e. their parent's view.

Giving our children the 'facts' is such a ridiculous idea that I wonder any parent could suggest it with a straight face. What we mean by this expression is really transmitting our own particular set of prejudices to our children, ruthlessly editing out all that we disagree with personally in the process, along with anything we think might be bad for our children to know about. If we do this with a life and death matter such as cancer, how much more likely are we to do it with a relatively trivial issue such as the importance of acquiring formal qualifications?