Saturday, 1 January 2011

A matter of semantics

At the heart of the chronic conflict between some home educating parents and their local authorities lies a massive but essentially simple misunderstanding. Both sides are talking at cross purposes. We see this clearly when we look at what certain parents say publicly and then compare it with what the Department for Education, Graham Badman and all local authorities have also declared publicly.

On the one hand are groups of home educators who claim that what amounts to a war is being waged against home education in this country. They talk of the defamation of home educators and attempts to introduce regulation which would virtually destroy home education as we know it. The Department for Education and local authorities, on the other hand, all claim that they fully support the right of parents to choose to educate their own children and have no desire at all to stop or even reduce the practice. One possibility is that only one side here is being truthful and honest. Perhaps the department for Education have a secret master plan for the erosion and eventual destruction of home education in the United Kingdom and things like the Badman review are the opening moves in this strategy. Or maybe home educators are themselves acting in bad faith, in an existential sense, and know perfectly well that nobody is really persecuting them and that they are making a lot of fuss about nothing. I find it unlikely that either the DfE or home educators are operating on this level. Far more probable is that both are being honest but without fully understanding each others concerns. Combine this with both sides using the same words to mean something quite different and the stage is set for alarums and excursions!

When the Department for Education say that they fully support the right of parents to educate their children, they are speaking from the perspective of education as being a process which involves a subject and object. In short, they regard it as something which somebody does to, or at least in the general direction of, somebody else. This is the traditional way of viewing the process of education and has been so for thousands of years. It is only relatively recently, since the Enlightenment in fact, that education has been viewed as something which might happen within somebody without the active participation of a second party. Rousseau's Emile set the stage for this idea. Home educators often do not see education in the same way as teachers, schools and local authorities. When they use the word 'education', they are referring to something which might simply happen quite naturally to an adult or child. The child in this context is not the object of another's actions. Rather, she is both subject and object and the involvement of another party would be at best an irrelevance and at worst an actual distraction from the process of education which is taking place. If another person is needed for the education, then the child, as subject, will precipitate the involvement of that other person.

When two parties are trying to engage in a dialogue about education and yet have not even established what they mean by the very word itself, there is bound to be friction. In this case, the topic under discussion is 'home education'. Contained within this two word phrase are so many implied meanings and so much scope for misunderstanding, that until both sides have hammered out what they mean, no dialogue will be possible. Does this sort of education really take place in the home? What is meant by 'education'? How do we define a 'home educated' child? Until this is done, there will be constant tension between many parents and their local authorities. This is neither because of a sinister plot being conducted by the Department for Education nor because all home educators are mad trouble makers. It is because they are speaking a different language.


  1. I think there is something in this. I often find it difficult to explain, in a few words, what we mean by home education in our family. A neighbour asked my children if they 'stopped' for Christmas. While we do stop some activities, it is quite comical to imagine their home education ceasing for the festive season. We spent the first hour of the new year with the dictionary out, looking up interesting words and discussing their derivation. That is part of their home education, part of mine too and also just how we live. Is there any hope of really explaining this to the Dept for Education? Would they care? I suspect they are only interested in their own definitions of education but I'd be happy to be wrong about that.

  2. "One possibility is that only one side here is being truthful and honest."

    Another possibility (as you go on to say, and I agree, I wrote the following before reading the rest) is that one side does not understand some types of home education and the affects that their actions can have on them. So they honestly believe that their actions will not harm home education, but they are mistaken, at least for some styles.

    "they are speaking from the perspective of education as being a process which involves a subject and object."

    So does autonomous education (the style I'm concerned about with regards to government interference). The subjects are chosen by the child, and the object is a self directed learner who loves learning and knows how to learn (including where to go for help when needed). With these skills and attitudes they can learn anything they choose (within their capacities) as adults. The government says that it wants people who can change direction and continue learning as adults. AE is ideal for this outcome. If they interfere with the efficiency of AE they are working against one of their own stated aims.