Saturday, 6 November 2010

Breeding hobgoblins

A few weeks ago a parent emailed me to say how much she enjoyed this blog. She said that she had unsubscribed from the HE-UK list because she had, after reading the messages there, started laying in bed at night worrying that her children were going to be taken into care! I can see her point. Reading some of the HE Internet lists and blogs, one does tend to come across a lot of scary stuff. It's enough to give anybody insomnia. Stories of parents having their children taken from them because they are home educating, social services interfering with families, oppressive actions by local authorities, the threat of having children removed for interrogation if this piece of legislation or that is passed, a 'war' on home education; the list of scare stories is endless. I have over the last year or two been put in mind many times of what the American journalist H. L. Mencken said:

'the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous of being led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.'

This is essentially what has been happening with home educating parents; a small group of people have been whipping up fears and threatening them with all sorts of dangers; dangers from which they alone can rescue them. Consider for a moment the Badman review of elective home education. I have no idea at all how the ordinary home educator might have reacted to the news that somebody was to look at the practice of home education and check if anything needed to change. We will never know, because before anybody had a chance to think about the thing, national home education groups told them what they should be thinking and feeling. On January 19th, 2009, the announcement was made that the review was to take place. That very same day, the BBC reported this:

'Home educators are angry'. Well of course, it was a little early to say, a few hours after the review had been launched, how the eighty thousand or so parents of home educated children in this country felt about it. What this headline really means is not that any parents actually are angry, but rather that a few people in a national organisation think that they should be angry. This is an attempt to shape and mould the opinion of home educating parents; to put the wind up them before they even have a chance to think about what is happening. It was pretty successful as well, as subsequent events showed.

Mind you, many parents seem only to happy to believe any sort of nonsense that anybody says about home education and the supposed threats to its existence. It looks to me as though a lot of them enjoy being scared about various nonexistent crises which menace their very way of life. In other words, people running Education Otherwise, Home Education UK and so on are certainly working hard to alarm parents, but they find no shortage of dupes and credulous fools willing to gape open mouthed at the ridiculous stories they peddle. Perhaps its like going to the cinema to watch a horror film; maybe these people enjoy being scared!

Let us look at another example of how the leaders of national HE groups and ordinary parents get together to enjoy a good scare. On September 19th this year one of the HE Internet lists to which I belong carried a story that the Metropolitan Police were treating home education and co-sleeping as risk factors in child abuse. It took me a day or two to track down the truth, talking to various people in the Met and speaking to the author of the piece which was causing concern. This was the Child Risk Assessment Matrix or CRAM for short. When I posted the results of my conversations, people expressed irritation. What did it have to do with me? Why was I interfering? It was as though they wanted to believe this foolishness and were annoyed that somebody had allayed their fears. Enter stage left Mike Fortune-Wood, the home educating parents' fearless champion. He wasn't convinced and was determined to get to the bottom of the matter! Talking to people indeed, I must be a gullible fool! He had made a Freedom of Information request to the Metropolitan Police and my word, he meant to find out the truth about this. Cheers of approval and relief that he was on the case. This was on September 20th. Freedom of Information requests must be complied with within twenty days and yet here we are, forty five days later and no news. My suspicion is that people like Mike Fortune-Wood and various others at Education Otherwise don't really want to reassure people about these imaginary threats. They are pleased, because it makes them indispensable. A similar scenario developed with the idea of weighing and measuring home educated children in Wales and Oldham. There is a panic, I find out what is going on, people are reluctant to be reassured and others claim to be making FoI requests. Then silence. The conclusion I draw is that many people want to be alarmed and see me as being a bit of a spoilsport for throwing cold water on their fantasies. What is interesting is that I often find that people from EO and other groups have actually been there before me and spoken to the same people. However, when they learn that there is nothing to worry about, they keep the news to themselves. Why would they do that, I wonder?

There are many motives for becoming well known as a champion of home educators. The obvious one is financial, hence the use of the term 'rent seekers', which we are seeing applied to those who are talking about home education to Graham Stuart. I do not myself believe that this is the primary reason for these people trying to maintain a sense of anxiety among home educators. I think it far more likely that it is the desire to feel important and have a chance of busy-bodying around; the same motive which caused people to descend upon Birmingham last month. I am irresistibly reminded of Rabbit in the Winnie the Pooh books. It will be remembered that he liked to boss people about and be the one organising things. Here is an extract from one of the books and it seems to me to describe perfectly how people like Ian Dowty, Fiona Nicholson and Mike Fortune-Wood probably feel. Just substitute mentally one of the above names for Rabbit when you read it and you will see what I mean:

'It was going to be one of Rabbit's busy days. As soon as he woke up he felt important, as if everything depended on him. It was just the day for organising something, or for Writing a Notice Signed Rabbit...'


  1. Prior to the Education Reform Act 1988, there were dire predictions from many quarters about education being dumbed down, teaching to the test, the curriculum narrowing etc. Of course, many of these scaremongering predictions have proven accurate. Just because dire predictions *might not* come true, doesn't mean they *won't*.

  2. If Badman has won an SAO would have been issued to any parent of a child under 16 who refused to allow LA staff into the private home to interview the child on its own.That is not whipping up fear that was a fact? The SAO would have been issued no matter how good the home education was refusing to meet or allow staff into home would have been used as evidence against the family?