Saturday, 4 September 2010

Waterloo Road

I was as irritated as anybody else when first I saw the apparently negative portrayal of home education in the BBC series Waterloo Road. However, unlike some of the home educating parents who have been fuming about this, I do not see it as government inspired propaganda designed to show home education as a foolish and bad choice likely to lead to misery. There is a much simpler explanation than that. In fact, when you look a little closer at the matter, it is hard to describe what is happening in the series as being at all negative; it is more a realistic depiction of a certain type of home educated child.

We have to think a little first about how home educators are perceived by ordinary, non-home educating parents. Now for most people, home educating is about hot-housing and/or anxious parents trying to keep their children from bad influences. Nobody except home educators has much idea about autonomous education or any other sort of home education apart from structured work at the kitchen table. I found it amusing that when I wrote about this perception in one of the newspaper articles on home education published last year, people became quite annoyed. I said;

Most people, if asked about home education, would probably picture a child being tutored at home by his parents; perhaps working at the kitchen table rather than sitting in a classroom.’

A number of home educating parents said that this was not at all what home education is like for many children today. They were of course quite right, but the truth still remains that this is for most people exactly what home education means. I notice that in the first episode of Waterloo Road, this very expression is used, there is mention of the child sitting ‘at the kitchen table’. This really is how the average person, including the average BBC script writer, thinks of home education. Of course there are good reasons for this view of British home education. The only individual home educated teenagers of whom one ever hears in the newspapers or on the television tend to be just this sort of child. After all, ordinary teenagers who just happen not to have been to school are not really as interesting as the precocious geniuses and are unlikely to find their way into the papers. I have to say now that some of these hot-housed home educated types come across as just as weird as the girl in Waterloo Road. Name a home educated teenage girl; quick now, without thinking about it. Most people come up almost at once with Ruth Lawrence. Although it is about twenty five years since she was in the public eye and despite the fact that she is hardly representative of today's home educated teenagers, Ruth Lawrence symbolises for many the typical home educated child. Brainy, precocious, pale, speaking strangely and pedantically; wholly different from any other child of her age. I cannot really think that it is a coincidence that the home educated child in Waterloo Road is also named Ruth; the allusion is plain. Let’s watch Ruth Lawrence, just to remind ourselves of what a certain kind of home educated teenager is like. Have a look at the link below. Read the article and then watch the video.

This then is one of the most enduring images of home education in this country; a thirteen year old girl called Ruth who is a little odd and fantastically bright because she has been intensively tutored by her strange father. I don't think that we need look any further for the source of the character in Waterloo Road. This is a precise description of the character of the home educated girl who appears in the programme, i.e. a thirteen year old girl called Ruth who is a little odd and fantastically bright because she has been intensively tutored by her strange father. Truth to tell, the script writers have simply taken a genuine home educated teenage girl and modelled their character upon her! I think that the worst one could accuse them of is laziness in not thinking a little deeper about home education or doing some research on the modern scene. I have to say that I find the programme itself is almost unwatchable. The characters make stilted speeches about multiculturalism and so on in a very wooden way. It does come across rather like a public service announcement at times.

Apropos of Ruth Lawrence and also the fifteen year-old boy, Arran Fernandez who is going to Cambridge University, has anybody ever wondered where their mothers are? I used to be intrigued by this when I saw Ruth Lawrence; no sign of her mother either. This is pretty much a leitmotif of intensive home education; the phenomenon of the invisible mother. The same thing with Judith Polgar, the Hungarian chess champion. Show me an intensively home educated child and you can be practically sure that the mother will have been airbrushed out of the picture; you will only ever see the father posing for the press with his kid.

I must finish by asking another question which has vexed me greatly over the years. What is it with home educated teenage boys' hair? I observed that Arran Fernandez had a most peculiar Pudding Basin style haircut, a style which I have seen before on home educated boys. One noticed the same thing about the children who were apparently killed by their mother in Edinburgh recently. In the most widely circulated photograph, the boys have this same, Pudding Basin style haircut. I could have guessed that they were home educated just from looking at their hair. It always seems to be either that or really long hair that makes the boy look as though he has just escaped from the nineteen sixties. Does anybody know why home educated teenage boys should be so fond of having shoulder length hair? Is it perhaps a reaction to the strange haircuts which their parents have inflicted upon them in their childhood?

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