A week ago, when somebody joined the HE-UK list because she wanted some solid information before taking the serious step of deregistering her child from school, Mike Fortune-Wood was quite open about his contempt for facts and figures when it came to home education. He asked bluntly, ' why do you want hard figures, in what way are they likely to help you?'
Now of course most of us would, if considering a new educational setting for our child, want to know a little about it. What are the future prospects if my child follows this course or that? How will colleges and prospective employers view this type of education? Almost all of us would ask questions of this sort, trying to elicit a few 'hard figures'. Such an attitude is not encouraged in circles where autonomous education is rife. There are I think two main reasons for this. First of course, the statistics are simply not available. Secondly, following autonomous education, a major strand of home education in this country, is more than simply choosing one pedagogical technique over another. It is very different from deciding to teach reading by synthetic phonics as against using look and say, for example. I chose to use look and say, but I have never encountered any bitterness and hostility from teachers who prefer phonics! There is something to be said for both methods and which you decide to use is a personal matter. This is very different from autonomous education, which displays many of the characteristics of a cult rather than a means of education.
There is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes a cult. I go to church every Sunday and would not class Christianity as a cult, but there are those who would. Most agree that Scientology is a cult, except of course Scientologists themselves. There are however a number of generally agreed characteristics which all cults share and I want to look at autonomous education in the light of these and see how it shapes up.
People drawn to cults are often in distressing circumstances, whether physical or mental; drug addicts, alcoholics, prisoners, the poor, those with borderline personality disorders, the grief stricken and so on. In this context, it is interesting to note the huge proportion of home educating parents who have withdrawn their children from school because of bullying or due to the school not making sufficient provision for their child's special educational needs. Watching one's child suffer must be among the most distressing experiences which any parent can endure and it strikes me that this group would be prime candidates for being attracted to some cult.
The attraction of a cult to those in distress is that it offers one simple explanation which will solve all the problems and remove the suffering. Whether it is accepting that you are a miserable sinner or acknowledging the need to write a letter deregistering your child from school, the answer is to stop asking questions and seeking rational explanations and just join the group. Once you have done this, all will become clear and your problems will be solved. To a suffering parent, this is an attractive proposition. Once they join the group, they receive unconditional love and acceptance. They belong. I am not going to quote any of the posts here from home education lists, but I suggest that readers who belong to HE-UK look at what is said to parents who announce that they are going to make the decision and invite home education into their lives. It is like a camp revival meeting! established members of the group on HE-UK may not actually cry, 'Amen' or 'Yea, Lord' or 'Preach it brother', but this is certainly the general sentiment. Another parent saved! This is precisely why the woman asking for information was viewed with such suspicion. She was not coming to the light through suffering, in the approved way. Instead, she was treating the matter as a rational decision. Big mistake! The true home educator does not weigh up the pros and cons cooly in this way, but makes the decision on faith alone. Unless she has reached this point by travelling through a vale of tears, there are those who would not view her as being a true member of the community. Asking for facts and figures indeed!
Having joined the family, new members are able to take on a new identity; that of home educators, often autonomous ones. They can say to others. 'We're autonomous', just as newly baptised Christians can claim, 'We are saved'. They are now set apart from the world. Often, it is at this point that they begin saying things which in the outside world might sound a little bit mad. This is common in cults, religions and autonomous home education. I have myself attended meetings where people would remark casually that they have been washed in the blood of the most precious lamb; not the sort of thing one would generally say down the pub or in the supermarket! It is the same with home education. Initiates will say things about the teaching of children which would cause most ordinary people to choke in disbelief.
Essentially, these parents find an identity in autonomous home education. They are no longer misfits and cranks, but have instead found a group where they can be themselves and nobody looks askance at them. The benefits to the parents are obvious; the advantages to their children less clear. I have only scratched the surface of this phenomenon today and I hope to explore the topic further over the next few days.