It sometimes seems to me that if it is possible to adopt a muddleheaded and foolish attitude towards some aspect of childhood and learning, then a fair number of home educating parents will do so. Graham Allen MP has produced a report in which he concludes that many children are being raised by parents who do not prepare them for life with other people very well and that one result is that the kids struggle and then fail at school. Anybody working with children will know this to be true. He recommends that between birth and the age of five, children who are at risk of having problems at school should be identified and their families given help and support. I cannot imagine anybody who knows anything about the sort of families of whom he is talking, disagreeing about the need for such an enterprise. Here is an account of the report;
Perhaps it was the implicit assumption in the report that children would all be attending school at the age of five, but Allen's report has annoyed some home educators, who of course regard it as a manifestation of the 'Nanny State'. Since I have for many years been involved in this field, I thought that I would just give one or two examples of the type of parent who is being talked of here.
Last week I was talking to a Friend who is a Community Psychiatric Nurse. She told me of a family she visits, a mother and father with a baby just starting to walk. The mother suffers from depression, nothing major, and the CPN just pops round to see how she is coping. A few weeks ago, she noticed that the baby had bruises on one side of her face and the arm on the same side. She ignored this, because all toddlers have falls. Last week, she noticed a new set of bruises, overlaying the old ones. She mentioned this to the parents and they laughed. It turned out that the child regularly fell out of his high chair and that that was how the bruising was happening. As they said, 'It happens a lot.' These are not bad people, but they lacked the sense to realise that they should do something about the problem, like strapping the kid into the highchair, for instance. My friend gave them a little common sense advice and the problem is now solved. It could of course have gone very badly for the family, with a hospital assuming that the injuries were repeated and non-accidental. There are many parents like this and they are often clustered in certain places.
A few years ago when I helped run a support group for mothers who were struggling, we organised a day at the seaside. None of the children and some of the mothers had never seen the sea before. One mother sat in a deckchair near the water's edge and her eighteen month old child toddled into the sea. She walked in up to her thighs, tripped and then fell face first into the water. The mother simply sat there, completely unable to conceive of the danger to her child. Fortunately, we were all aware of her, what might politely be called 'poor parenting skills'. I and the psychologist who worked with the group both reached the child in about a nanosecond. She was fine, but if left to the mother might well have drowned.
There are many parents like the ones above who welcome help and support. When they are directed to support groups which meet regularly, they are grateful and without such support they risk having their children removed from them and placed in care, which is a terrible thing. Graham Allen's report is suggesting that more help be directed to such mothers and fathers and that an effort is made to identify them and offer help so that their children are not taken away. It is also hoped that with appropriate help, their children will be able to thrive at school. Because a lot of children these days are starting school in such a pitiful condition that they are destined to fail from day one. These are children who have literally never sat at a table. They have never even held a knife or fork, having used their fingers up until now. Increasingly, they are still in nappies at the age of four or five. Some of them do not know how to sit in a chair. We are not talking here about children who have not been taught to read and write before they start school, but of children who can really only communicate in grunts. I suppose I should describe this as a 'delay in the acquisition of expressive language', but the fact is that they do only grunt. This is not a pathological condition caused by a neurological deficit; it is because nobody has ever talked to them normally or attempted to have a conversation. Because they cannot talk and do not know how to listen, they are unable to learn.
That anybody should be opposed to an initiative aimed at helping these children is beyond my comprehension, but then as I said at the beginning, if there is a muddleheaded or foolish attitude to be found about education, one can depend upon a certain type of home educator to put it forward! It is to be hoped that Graham Allen's recommendations are adopted by the coalition and that these wretched and vulnerable children are provided with the help they so desperately need.