Thursday, 25 October 2012

Early reading through play

Most orthodox educationalists, as well as an awful lot of home educators, would be horrified at the idea of teaching a baby to read. This would be particularly the case when it is revealed that the poor mite was given no say in the matter and subjected to the most intensive teaching from the age of three months. This at least is one way of viewing the case.

I mentioned a couple of days ago that many people, both teachers and home educating parents, create a wholly false division between play and structured education and also between teaching and games. Let us ask ourselves what babies like. One of the things that they like is the undivided attention of a kind and friendly adult. They enjoy this all the more if the adult plays simple games with them; things like peek-a-boo. Babies often want the same activities repeated over and over again. Whether it is a game or a favourite book, they like to have things repeated often.

Thinking now about reading, we realise that a lot of it consists of identifying shapes with which we are familiar. I am not talking about letters, but the shapes of words. The word ball has an entirely different shape from the word dog. These distinctive shapes are largely caused by the ascenders and descenders; those parts of the letters which stick up or down. If we want a baby to read, and I can’t imagine why we would not, then the first step will be to teach her to identify different shapes. Most puzzles for children are too complex for our purpose and so we turn to products marketed for children with special educational needs. Here are some which are perfect, being no more than simple, geometric shapes with handles so that a baby or child can grasp them:

A baby of three months will, with help, be able to manipulate these puzzles and learn the difference between circles, squares and triangles. This is a good beginning and after a while we can move on to slightly more complex puzzles; things like this:

From these, it is only a short step to simple conventional jigsaw puzzles.

Now the great thing about this sort of game is that the reward for the baby is intrinsic. Babies love the attention of an adult and they also like to repeat simple games over and over. Doing puzzles of this sort with an adult on hand is unbelievably satisfying to a three or four month old baby. Here is a puzzle which although a little too complex and fussy for my taste, could be used with a year old baby:;5VEMYAGHAJ

Now it is important to realise that it would be no use just leaving these things laying around and hoping for the best. The reward for the baby lies in the attention from the adult. We hope to get the child to associate the identification of shapes with pleasurable interaction with a loving adult.

Any reasonably bright child of eighteen months old can be taught to identify and name individual numbers by this method. By this, I mean that a child of eighteen months will, after a programme of teaching such as this be able to point to and name numbers when she sees them on houses or street signs for example. Once this is done, the process has been established. Here is a baby who can read! What is good about all this is that it has been done only by undertaking the kind of activities with the baby which she would ask for if she were able to do so. Adult attention and simple, repetitive games in which the adult also shows pleasure. All that has happened is that a parent has played with her child in the most natural way possible and the first stage of literacy emerges as a by-product.

In a few days time, I shall talk a little about how to extend this sort of play, with a view to getting the baby to read text.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Who wrote the briefing paper which Education Otherwise is circulating to Welsh Assembly Members?

In September, a series of documents began to be put up on the Home Education UK site about the new legislation being discussed in Wales; that relating to the regulation of home education. Eventually, they were all melded together into one document, which bore the name of Wendy Charles-Warner. It may be found here:

On October 13th, Alison Sauer introduced this briefing paper to the Education Otherwise site, uploading it to their files. She said:

This is the Briefing Document from the Wales Facebook Group with Welsh intro and summary added. Most is in English.

It was at once greeted as her own work. Edwina Theunissen, a trustee of Education Otherwise living in Wales, said;

Thanks Alison, for this. It's the most impressive doc I've seen so far and should be a great help to home edders in Wales. It must have taken a great deal of time and effort so congrats to you and whomsoever your collaborators are.

Alison Sauer did not react by disclaiming responsibility for writing the thing, merely accepted the congratulations as her due. At this point, most people assumed that Alison Sauer was the prime mover behind the briefing paper. A day or two later of course, she initiated a campaign of harassment against me via Facebook; getting people to bombard me with silly emails and publicising my address and urging people to arrange for nuisance deliveries to be made to it. Her supposed grounds for doing this were that she did not feel it right that Wendy Charles-Warner, the supposed author of the briefing paper, should be mentioned publicly in connection with it. It is interesting to see what Alison was saying at this time. In emails to me she uses the expression ‘we’ a lot, which suggests strongly that she was something to do with both the briefing paper and also Mrs Charles-Warner. For example, speaking of Wendy Charles-Warner, she said;

we do try to keep her whereabouts confidential

The newspaper and BBC articles were not supposed to be published online and we do not draw attention to them on purpose.

Whom do readers suppose that Alison Sauer means by this mysterious ‘we’? We, as in ‘me and Wendy Charles-Warner’? Or perhaps, in light of later developments, 'me and Education Otherwise'?  In any case, it is clear that Alison has a stake in the briefing paper and is in some way very involved in it. As we have seen, trustees at Education Otherwise thought that she had written it and were dealing with it on that basis.

Four days later, on October 18th, Education Otherwise made a surprising announcement. This may be found here:

It will be observed that the briefing paper is now being unambiguously attributed to Wendy Charles-Warner and that she has been appointed Education Otherwise’s official representative in Wales, a role previously held, incidentally, by Edwina Theunnisen. The briefing paper has been officially adopted and is now being printed and sent to all Welsh Assembly Members.

I have not room in this post for a detailed criticism of the paper. It is pretty dreadful and contains many errors and inaccuracies. That is nothing to the purpose here, except to mention that the style is unmistakably Alison Sauer’s. We have seen that it was accepted as such when first it appeared and also that she was using the term ‘we’ when referring, apparently,  to she and Mrs Charles-Warner.

What would Education Otherwise’s motive have been for misleading people in this way as to the authorship? There are two good reasons for concealing publicly the fact that Alison Sauer had a hand in this document. For one thing, her name on the cover would have discredited it at once as far as many home educators were concerned. After the fiasco of the abortive attempt to introduce new guidelines for local authorities about home education, anything with ‘Alison Sauer’ on the cover would be damned in the eyes of many. There is a more serious objection to using her name openly in connection with the briefing paper. Welsh Assembly Members are likely to look more favourably upon such a document if supposedly written by a Welsh home educator than they would if it had been produced by an English businesswoman. Some of them are already getting a little ticked off at the fact that most of the opposition to the proposed Bill is coming from England, rather than Wales.

As if that is not enough, there would be a horrible suspicion, were Alison Sauer to be seen as involved with the briefing document, that she was not completely unbiased and that there was a clear conflict of interest. As readers know, Alison runs an outfit known as SC Education:

This company is working hard to encourage the spread of the flexischooling model of education. Indeed, according to her company website, Alison Sauer is  ' currently liaising with the DfE to promote flexischooling as a recognised and credible system.'  One of the alternatives advocated by the briefing document, instead of the compulsory registration and monitoring of home education,  is of course an expansion of flexischooling. If shown to be the author of this document, the unfortunate impression might be created that a commercial opportunity was being exploited here by Alison Sauer; that by pushing for an increase in flexischooling in Wales, she would be creating future work for her own company.  Another benefit of the system that the briefing paper recommends is, ' Investment in training for LA staff in the law and their duties'. By an uncanny coincidence, training LA staff in the law and their duties  is something else which Alison Sauer provides.

 I shall in another post examine the briefing paper itself in detail, but for now I wonder if Education Otherwise would like to explain in a little more detail the precise provenance of the thing? For some, it is beginning to look rather as though Alison Sauer now has her feet firmly under the table at Education Otherwise; a development which is unlikely to be universally welcomed!

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Another ‘briefing paper’ about the Welsh plans for regulating home education

Perhaps I have unfairly focused upon the ‘briefing paper’ produced by Wendy Charles-Warner. After all, she is not the only player in town. Let’s look at the one produced by Fiona Nicholson up in Sheffield. It is to be hoped that I am not casting either the charming Ms Nicholson or her son into hazard by mentioning their general location, as I inadvertently did with Mrs Charles-Warner a fortnight ago. Here is the document produced by Fiona:


I have observed before that in contrast to the campaign against Graham Badman’s proposals, the current agitation against the ideas being mooted in Wales are not concerned with abstract ideas about rights, duties or matters of conscience. Instead, objections to the proposed new law is stated in terms which are calculated to appeal to those who are not themselves home educators; the aim being to make others feel sympathetic to the cause. It is being very cleverly done. For instance the cost of the scheme and the fact that it might draw resources away from other vulnerable children is a popular debating tactic being used.

Fiona, in a pretty deft and cunning piece of sophistry, manages unfortunately to pander to homophobes. I am sure that this was not intentional, but never the less, that is what has happened. In an attempt to alarm Christians and get them on the side of home educators, she says this:

Sex Education

Concerns have been raised over the requirement for home education to "prepare [children] for the responsibilities of adulthood" [67] interpreted as meaning that the parent has to teach children about sex and contraception by a particular age. Some parents who are home educating because of particular religious or philosophical convictions would find themselves unable to comply and would not wish their children to be asked about sex education during the mandatory interview.

Now most of us, when we talk of ‘preparing children for the responsibilities of adulthood’ might well think in terms of things like teaching about income tax and mortgages; Fiona thinks, or purports to think, that it means that home educated children will have to be taught about contraception by a certain age. Worse still, a man from the council will be coming round and checking our children’s knowledge of contraceptive methods, in order to make sure that we have been fulfilling out duty around sex education. It is a chilling prospect! Well, it would be, if there was any truth in it.

Where does the homophobia come into this? Take a look at this piece about the new Welsh proposals on a Christian website:

Now look to the right and check out Related Articles. See the one about ‘compulsory Sex Education ‘undermines’ free society? This was a hot topic among many Christians at the same time that some home educators were fighting against certain parts of the Children, Schools and Families Bill in 2009 and 2010. One of the reasons for this is that quite a few Christians are bitterly opposed to their children being taught about homosexuality; in particular the notion that gay relationships can in any way be regarded as being as valid as heterosexual marriages. In fact, any sort of sex education, of the kind likely to be approved by a local authority,  is regarded by many Christians as a wicked plot which will end up with their children being taught how to commit sodomy or obtain abortions. Sex education, from this perspective, is designed to persuade innocent, God-fearing children that unnatural, same-sex unions are as holy as Christian marriage and that promiscuity is normal.  What about contraception? Why has Fiona mentioned that specifically? Are you a Catholic and so opposed to artificial birth control? You fool, the council will force you to teach your child about the use of contraception!   It is perhaps no coincidence that the campaign against the Welsh proposals has now attracted the favourable attention of the American Home School Legal Defense Association; a notoriously reactionary,  homophobic and right-wing group.

I suppose the real question to ask is whether Fiona Nicholson or anybody else has the least particle of evidence that local authorities really will be interrogating children about their knowledge of contraception and sex if this bill goes through. How will it work? Will it be like having the man round to read the gas meter? One imagines somebody from the council knocking on the door with a clipboard, saying, ‘Morning madam, I’ve come to check your daughter’s knowledge of contraception.' He is shown the poor little mite of eleven or whatever age it is by which Fiona thinks that children will have to be taught about sex and contraception. ‘Now Mary, can you give me three reasons why withdrawal is not a safe method of contraception? Do you know about the Dutch Cap?’

Is this really what any sane person imagines will be happening if the registration and monitoring of home education in Wales becomes law? If so, could we be given some evidence for this belief? Otherwise, it will look to many as though this is just one more of the ridiculous scare stories being put about to enlist the support of even the most unsavoury types in the campaign against the proposed legislation.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Trahison des clercs

Some children will succeed academically despite their environment. No matter how dreadful the school or impoverished the home, there will always be those who overcome these disadvantages and become brilliant scholars or famous scientists. This is the case whether they attend a strict school or are raised in the most progressive of households. The mistake would be then, to attribute their subsequent success to the factors which they overcame by their intellectual ability or the force of their personality; in other words, to say that the child succeeded because of the terrible school or as a result of the poor home background. I am reminded of the truth of this whenever my attention is drawn to children who have supposedly flourished as a consequence of autonomous education.

A couple of weeks ago, this piece appeared in the Huffington Post:

Inevitably, one of the comments is about a success story of autonomous education. This is of course one of the two cases who are invariably cited when discussion turns to this topic; the boy who studied biochemistry at Manchester. Before we go further, it is worth noting one or two things. The first is that for ten years, this case has been endlessly recycled as firm evidence of the efficacy of autonomous education. You might have expected by now to see one or two new names appearing.  The second is that the mother always manages to leave out key aspects of the story, in such a way as to mislead others into thinking that the bizarre experimental techniques to which her children were subjected, actually caused the desirable outcomes which followed. To give a couple of examples, in the comment on the above article, we find the following:

I have autonomously home educated my children who both chose not to do any kind of formal work until they were about 14

This of course is not true; one of the children chose to attend secondary school at eleven, although it did not work out. No mention is made of taking GCSEs at twelve either.

This case, which always seems to crop up, is fascinating, because we are able to trace the ill effects of this type of education and see their origin in the methods used. The children’s mother has given the game away in various interviews. In 2003, for example, she told of her daughter attending a ‘tester’ day at the local infants’ school. Apparently the child was asked by a teacher to write out the numbers from one to nine and when she did so, the teacher told her that she had reversed two of them. This sort of thing was against the principle of the mother and, supposedly, put the kid off mathematics for years. In other words, number and letter reversals were not to be remarked upon, let alone corrected.

Elsewhere, and apparently oblivious to the implications of what she was saying, the mother tells us that her eldest son’s handwriting was practically indecipherable when he began college at fourteen. She find this amusing and does not apparently tie it in with an ideology which dictates that wrongly formed letters should not be corrected!

My problem is that people like this then go on to encourage others to follow suit and behave in the same way. Now in their case, things worked out OK; the father was a teacher and so were the mother’s parents and this no doubt mitigated some of the ill effects of their crank methods. Other children are not so lucky. They read of this sort of case, with of course key parts edited out, and think that they too can achieve the same ends by allowing their children to choose to do no formal work until the age of fourteen. This sort of thing, when educated people who really should know better, go out of their way to mislead others who might not have had their advantages is truly trahison de clercs of the most culpable kind.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

A minor mystery

Since the recent unpleasantness with Alison Sauer, I have been puzzling something over in my mind and it is this. As soon as I came across reference to the Welsh Assembly Government’s plans for the compulsory registration and monitoring of home education, I felt that I should alert others to what was in the wind. I read about the plans on the night of August 4th and then posted about them the following morning. At that time, there had been no mention of this on any of the lists such as HE-UK or EO. Even Fiona Nicholson seemed to have missed it. As soon as I mentioned it here, on the morning of August 5th, others picked it up and started spreading the word to various lists and forums. I found this deliciously ironic, that I, who am viewed by some as the arch-enemy of home education, should be the one to tip people the wink about this development!

Once I had mentioned it, the news spread like wildfire and is of course now being talked about everywhere. I dare say that this would have happened soon anough, even without my intervention; I am not taking credit for that! Here is the mystery though. Soon after I had posted about this, Alison Sauer came on here and commented scathingly about several minor errors in what I had said. She seemed very tetchy with me and, I thought, annoyed to see the Welsh proposals being talked about. Judging from her comments, she knew all about the thing, certainly she knew far more about it than I did. Yet she had not said a word about this on any of the lists to which she belongs and if it had not been for my mentioning it, I gained the impression that Alison Sauer would have sat on the news herself. Why should this be? Why did it take me to alert home educators to what was going on, when Alison Sauer already knew all about it? I am puzzled by this and would be interested to hear of any theories.

Work or play?

In the next week or so, I want to think a little about academic achievement in early childhood; that is to say before the age of four or five. I have told readers before that my daughter was reading at fifteen months and was fluent by two years and three months. This is very early and many people, particularly education professionals, were horrified about what I was doing. It would cause the child to develop an aversion to literacy, I was not considering ‘reading readiness’, it was cruel to push a baby in this way and a hundred other objections. They were of course idiots and the reason that they adopted this foolish position was because they had created in their own minds a dichotomy between learning and play.

In fact of course, children learn through play and do so almost from the moment of birth. This is only natural; mammals in general play and this often the way in which the young of a species gain the vital skills that they will need as adults. In lions, for example, this can take the form of mock fights and pretend ambushes among the cubs. With humans, this same process can be guided to encourage the young human to acquire the literacy and mathematical ability which will be indispensable in later life.

I have not the time adequately to explore this thesis today, but hope to do so over the course of the next few days. I am frantically busy at the moment with revising a book. When I wrote a book on the 1970s earlier this year, it seemed a great idea to give it the sub-title; When flares were cool and Jim could fix it. This would hardly be what one wish to appear on the cover of any book following recent revelations and so the cover and some of the book will need to be changed before publication in the spring, which is exceedingly time-consuming.

Friday, 19 October 2012

A case of Heller’s Syndrome

As I have mentioned here before, I have had a good deal of experience one way and another with autism and similar disorders. This ranges from the short-term fostering of children to working with adults in a residential setting. I was preparing to write about the acquisition of literacy this morning, when I got sidetracked; this means that I shall instead be writing a little about autism.

I touched yesterday upon the aversion felt by some parents to the MMR vaccine and its supposed role in precipitating autistic spectrum disorders. Much of this anxiety was caused by a rather slippery customer called Andrew Wakefield, whose research has been revealed to have been utterly dreadful and possibly dishonest. He tapped in though to two very powerful undercurrents in the psyche of parents. One of these was a general fear of vaccination and the other the compulsive and thoroughly understandable desire to find a rational explanation for a child’s disability.

Long before Wakefield’s work, there were parents who were uneasy at the thought of their children being injected with germs. This has always been the case and is from time to time made worse by disasters such as that at Lubeck in 1930. I certainly remember mothers in the 1970s who refused to have their children inoculated, on the grounds that it was ‘unnatural’. Where Wakefield touched another chord was that he sought to associate a particular vaccination with a specific ill effect; the MMR with the development of autistic features in  small children  who had, until that time, been developing normally.

Back in the 1980s, I was fostering a boy of five who had all the signs of a particularly severe form of autism. He had almost no expressive speech, echolalia was present, persistent head banging, an IQ so low that it was impossible to measure, obsessive adherence to rituals and routines, along with various other things. You might, had you not know the child’s history, have supposed this to be almost a textbook case of Kanner’s Syndrome or autism. It was in fact nothing of the sort. This child had developed normally up to the age of three and a half. According to his parents, he had been bright, alert and very vocal. Then, he began to lose all the skills which he had acquired. They went over the course of nine months or so. Today, he is in long term care and never recovered any of those skills.

This was in fact a case of Heller’s Syndrome, otherwise known as a disintegrative psychosis. Nobody knows what causes it and there is no cure. Heller described all this decades before the work of Kanner and Asperger. In many ways, the disintegrative psychosis is all but indistinguishable from late-onset autism. No know cause, no cure.

Now if there is one thing more distressing than the death or disability of a member of our family, especially if that person is a child, it is something which has apparently a wholly random origin. At least if a child is born with Down’s, you can understand the chromosomal abnormality which has caused the condition, perhaps agree that the mother was elderly and that this might be implicated to some extent. Even if your child is killed on a level crossing, you can see what happened and perhaps campaign for improved safety at level crossings. In the case of late onset autism, disintegrative psychoses and so on; there is no know cause. One moment you have a healthy, happy child who is reaching all his milestones at the right age and developing normally in every way; then suddenly it stops and he goes backwards. This is the cruellest and most incomprehensible thing which could possible befall a parent. When somebody came along with a simple explanation which tapped into a pre-existing fear, little wonder that he found many takers for this theory. The thing is, Heller’s and sometimes Kanner’s Syndromes manifest in early childhood and they often appear coincidentally after some vaccination. It does not take much to see that as causation and blame the vaccine itself for a completely random act of nature which would have struck in any case.

All of which has of course very little to do with home education, other than the fact that there does seem to be more autism among home educating families than the general population. If though, as is possibly so, between a quarter and a third of home educated children have special needs of one sort or another; this should not surprise us too much. Nor should it come as a surprise that many members of home educating support groups should be vehemently opposed to vaccination; especially the MMR.

The lasting legacy of the fear of vaccines and their supposed association with autism has of course been the death of children. As the end of the millennium approached, measles was becoming a rare illness in childhood. Those, like the present author, who recollect vividly the epidemics of the 1950s, were glad of this. At that time, children were routinely dying and suffering brain damage from the disease. Good news indeed that it was almost conquered. In the year that Wakefield started the panic, there were just fifty six cases of measles in this country. Ten years later, the numbers had risen twenty five fold and we were again seeing deaths from measles. An old enemy had returned, thanks to bad science and spectacularly ill-advised parents.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Most home educating parents are normal...

I was asked recently to post about the fact that the vast majority of home educating parents in this country are perfectly normal men and women who want only to provide the best possible education for their children. I am happy to do so, because of course this is perfectly true. Unfortunately, the small percentage of strange and sometimes downright loopy individuals scattered among the normal and well-balanced home educators have an influence out of all proportion to their numbers. Many of these weirder types spend hours on the internet connecting with other odd people and, encouraged by a handful of high profile figures, they buy into a fantasy world of conspiracy and persecution. It goes without saying that this is not only the case with home education! That’s just what the internet is like. I am not bothered in general if a group of rock fans wish to get together and exchange mad theories about dead singers or if steam train enthusiasts want to accuse each other of heresy; these are harmless enough matters. I am concerned though when it is happening with home education, because I care about home education and worked for many years with vulnerable children. This is something about which I feel strongly.

Those relatively small number of home educating parents who sit up until four or five in the morning communicating with other like-minded nuts, often become vociferous members or founders of home educating support groups. They pick up a lot of nonsense from the internet and then become evangelical about spreading the news and explaining to other parents why they should not accept visits from their local authority or teach their children to read. Yes, really. I had an email from a mother at a home educating group who was secretly teaching her child to read, because she was too embarrassed to let anybody at her local group know about it. They was a strong ethos there about the virtues of the spontaneous acquisition of literacy and anybody who actually taught their child was regarded as a pushy parent. Imagine that; a home educating support group where parents were made to feel uneasy and ashamed about educating their children!

At another group, two of the main members were bitterly opposed to the MMR vaccine. Again, this was largely as a result of hanging round crank sites on the net. One of them had a child on the autistic spectrum and was so anti-MMR that one of the other parents felt that she had to keep secret the fact that she had had her own child vaccinated. In other groups dominated by people whom one could describe as disciples of various home educating gurus, parents allowed visits from their local authority, but kept that secret as well, for fear of being ostracised.

So, yes it is absolutely true that the overwhelming majority of home educating parents in this country are normal people who are interested only in educating their children. But that small number who are a bit mad have quite an influence and because they are so vociferous, they manage to dominate many groups, forums and lists. It is this which worries me.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Why should the state monitor home education if they don’t check on children’s nutrition in the same way?

The new Welsh attempt to regulate home education has caused the reappearance of an old and feeble argument by home educators. Why, they say, should the state be entitled to check the educational provision of children at home and not enquire into other, equally important, things such as diet and nutrition? It is an absurd gambit, so foolish in fact that most education professionals simply ignore it. This is a mistake, because it gives the wilder kind of home educating parent the opportunity to claim that the argument must be unassailable; look, they say, those professionals have not responded and so must be lost for an answer!

Mammals feed their young. Except in very rare cases, it may be assumed that the mammals of our own species will do the same, without the need for any compulsion. This has been the case since humans emerged as a species. The same is not true of academic education, which has only been around for a few thousand years. For a good deal of that time, especially in recent centuries; formal education has been the province of professionals, to whom parents entrust their children. Because of this, there is no reason at all to suppose that parents will undertake this function, even if they have withdrawn their children from school. It makes sense to see if they are in fact doing so.

The effects of poor childhood nutrition in this country are seldom severe or life-threatening. We have no kwashiorkor or beri-beri. The worst one might expect are things like rickets. As far as childhood education is concerned, on the other hand,  the effects of a deficit can be severe, long lasting and even life-threatening. A lack of qualifications can lead to things such as depression, unemployment and even suicide. We often see the supposed sixteen suicides a year which are caused by bullying cited by home educators, but they do not seem to have noticed the hundreds of extra suicides caused by the recession. These are linked to unemployment and there is a strong association between unemployment and lack of academic qualifications.

The ill effects resulting from inadequate childhood nutrition are essentially a private matter which affects only the individual. Of course, some medical problems in adulthood might cost the NHS something, but in general the individual is the one who suffers from this sort of thing. This is not at all the case with inadequate education, which is a public matter. This is because the illiterate, those with no GCSEs and so on, make up a very large proportion of people in prison, psychiatric hospitals and are wholly reliant on state benefits for much of their life. This means that those who are poorly educated often end up a burden on society as a whole. This is not often the case with those who were not fed a perfectly balanced diet in childhood.

To sum up:

There is an assumption, based upon strong evidence, that mammals, including humans will feed their young. There is no reason to suppose that this is also the case with academic education.

The ill effects of poor childhood nutrition tend to be mild; those of inadequate education, by contrast, are frequently severe and even life-threatening.

One is a private matter and the other a matter of public concern which causes great problems for society as a whole.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

How well do home educated children do academically?

We looked yesterday at a ‘briefing paper’ about the proposed Welsh law on home education. This was designed to bamboozle education professionals into believing that there is good evidence that home education in this country is likely to lead to strong academic outcomes. One of the ways that this was done was to talk of a page on a website intended specifically for home educated children’s examination results and then pretend that these were the achievements of members of one home educating support group. We also saw evidence from the USA which apparently tended to suggest that home educated children did well academically and were more likely to go to college and university than schooled children. This is also implausible and for much the same reason.

The research quoted in the ‘briefing paper’ yesterday was that conducted by Larry Rudner and Brian Ray. Although extensive, it suffered from the same disadvantage as the statistics from the British website; that is to say, it was all self-selected. One sees at once the problem. Those volunteering to take part in such research are those for whom home education has been a success. Those who remain semi-literate after ten years of home education are unlikely in the extreme to offer to take part in any project looking at academic achievement. What is needed is a large group of young people, some of whom have been to school and others of whom have been home educated, so that we may compare their academic levels. Such a study has in fact been running in America for over ten years and the data from this provides a far more realistic and objective measure of the educational quality of home education than anything produced by Rudner or Ray.

Those wishing to attend college or university in the United States sit either the American College Testing assessment or the Scholastic Aptitude Test; the ACT or SAT. These measure such things as English, including reading ability, science and mathematics. Since the late 1990s, those taking these tests have been asked if they were educated at home. Of course, in a sense, this too is a self selected sample consisting only of those wishing to attend college, but that too reveals interesting information, as we shall see.

The first thing that one notices is that although home educated children taking these tests do tend to be slightly ahead of those who went to school, the differences are not dramatic. The ACT is scored from 1 to 36. The average schooled pupils score is 21, but home educated teenagers come in a little higher at almost 23. It gets really interesting when you break down the individual components of the scores. Home educated kids are quite a bit ahead on English, especially reading. This is not surprising really, since they spend much of their time in the company of adults; one would expect them to be more articulate and have a better vocabulary than those who spend their days in the company of other children. There is no difference at all in science and in mathematics, the home educated children lagged noticeably behind those who had been to school.

Another point to consider is that the proportion of home educated teenagers applying to go into further education seemed to be less than expected, given the numbers. In other words, it looks as though home educated children in America are less not more likely to go to university.

Of course, these figures must be treated with caution, but they are never the less intriguing. They do seem to suggest that the educational advantages of home education are not quite as pronounced as some would have us believe. The teenagers might have greater vocabularies, but they are worse at mathematics. There is no discernible advantage in science. The fact that a lower proportion of home educated children than expected is applying to go to university is also worth thinking about. This all gives a far more balanced picture of home education than one normally gains from looking at research financed by people like the HSLDA.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

A Home Education UK 'briefing paper' on the Welsh proposals

It will have been rightly guessed by some readers that I would not long be able to stay away from the subject of the proposed Welsh legislation which will introduce compulsory monitoring of home education in the principality. I have been shocked over the last few days to read some of the arguments being put forward against this idea. If it is necessary to engage in deceit and spread falsehoods in order to oppose the plans; what does this say about the strength of the arguments being put forward?

Those opposing the Welsh proposals have been producing a series of so-called ‘briefing papers’. Essentially, these are no more than the opinions of various home educators who do not approve of registration and monitoring and hope to persuade others to share their views. There are two types of such papers. One kind is directed at professionals working in the field of education and is intended to show that home educated children are not at increased risk of abuse and actually do better academically than children in school. The other sort hope to  work up support from other groups such as Christians, by playing to their prejudices. Today, I want to look at a typical example of the first type; that designed to deceive teachers, social workers and other professionals.

This example is taken from the Home Education UK website:

I have no idea of the author; perhaps it was Mike Fortune-Wood himself. The paper begins by suggesting that Welsh schools are not in general brilliant, which is true. Then it looks at American research which it is claimed shows that home educated children do very well; better in fact than those at school. There is much wrong with this section, but since I do not think that the American scene can really be compared with this country, we shall let that pass. It is when the author writes of British evidence that he reveals his true motives. and these are not precisely open and honest.  I do not have time to go into the whole thing, but a few particularly awful instances should suffice. Here is a quotation from the thing:

Although little research is available in the UK there is no reason to believe that the

results for children here would be any different and research that has been

undertaken supports that view. A 2002 study of 419 EHE families in the UK found:

‘The results show that 64% of the home‐educated Reception aged children scored over 75% on their PIPS Baseline Assessments as opposed to 5.1% of children nationally.

Either the author has not read the actual research or is deliberately setting out to mislead. In fact the PIPS Assessments relate not to 419 families but 35. What do readers think? Has the author of this supposedly careful and pseudo-academic paper read the research which he is quoting? If not, it casts doubt upon the value of the other figures which he adduces in defence of his argument. If he has read the research, then he is trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes and hope that they will not spot the inflation of the figures relating to the PIPS Assessments. Neither case exactly encourages confidence!

The indications are that this was a deliberately misleading. I say this, because a few lines later, we find this claim:

A Wiltshire based home education support group has kept records of children in the group since 2002. They found that the 52 older children involved had achieved 199 formal qualifications in 50 subjects with 69% of those qualifications being GCSE or IGCSE, 13% were A levels and others in Tertiary or performance. 50% of those qualifications were taken under the age of 16 years. 33% of those students achieving performing arts qualifications were awarded distinctions and 96% of other grades

were at A* ‐C.

I think that readers here will agree that the intention is to suggest that a longitudinal study has been made of a cohort from one home education group? Note that ‘records’ have been kept of ‘children in the group’. Let us be plain about this. We are being asked to believe that the figures for examination results are all from one group of children; those who attended a home educating support group in Wiltshire.  This simply cannot be a mistake; it must be a calculated falsehood, because the author gives the source for his claim. Here it is;

Presumably, he banked on nobody bothering to check the references. This is an open page, where anybody from the United Kingdom may send any exam result which they claim a home educated child has achieved. Nobody checks, the things are all done anonymously and then added to the total. Far from this showing that 52 members of a single home educating support group did brilliantly academically, it merely suggests that a load of random people emailed this site from anywhere in the world and their claims were placed there without any sort of checking. Of course this group of 52 children had good academic results; only those who had gained qualifications were intended to be included on it!

There is far more wrong with this paper than just these two examples. The whole thing is an absolute horror. I am curious, for instance,  about the 10 young people with 49 A levels between them. Eton only manage an average of four A levels per pupil; according to this a home educating group in Wales is averaging around five a head. More research needed here!

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Teaching home educated children about climate change

I absolutely adore the whole global warming/manmade climate change thing. The story has a mythic grandeur about it which is wholly lacking from most of the nonsense which one sees in the newspapers. This is essentially the tale of how Man’s wickedness and greed brings down a worldwide catastrophe upon the entire race. It is the story of the Biblical deluge, which was precipitated by the same sins, with much the same consequences; i. e. rising sea levels!

Those of us with long memories might perhaps recall the days forty years ago when the scientific journals were full of the danger of manmade global cooling. This was being caused by pollution from power stations and factories. Particles of smoke and dirt were filling the upper atmosphere and preventing the light from the sun reaching us. The evidence was compelling; global temperatures falling since the end of World War II, cold water fish moving south into temperate waters and many other things. Then we had the population explosion which would cause the end of civilisation, the exhaustion of oil and other natural resources by the year 2000, the threat of nuclear war and, best of all, the Nuclear Winter. Remember that one? It was great; a combination of nuclear war and Ice Age.  Also to be brought about by our wicked and sinful nature!

Still and all, this is nothing to the purpose. Any child taking science GCSEs needs to know a little about this subject, even if it is a pack of fairy stories for credulous and gullible fools who are unable to think for themselves. Here are a few practical ways of demonstrating to children how the mechanisms of the climate work.

The easiest way to show the practical effects of the Greenhouse Effect is just to set a transparent plastic cup on a sunny lawn, trapping some air beneath it. Leave it for an hour of so and then get your child to check the temperature. It will be as hot as an oven. Explain that without this Greenhouse Effect, life on earth would be impossible. The planet would alternately bake and freeze. If not for the water vapour and carbon dioxide in the air which traps the heat, we would be in a sorry state indeed! You sometimes hear foolish people talking about the Greenhouse Effect as though it were a bad thing. Without it, life on Earth could not survive.

Now fill one transparent plastic cup with earth and another with water and set them side by side on a sunny window sill. You will find that the earth heats up very fast, but cannot retain the heat. As soon as you remove it from the sun, it cools very quickly. The water, on the other hand, heats up slowly, but retains the heat for a long time. This  keeps the temperature of the planet fairly level. You could talk about heat-sinks and the Gulf Stream which keeps this country warmer than other European countries on the same latitude.

As every schoolchild knows, the Arctic ice is melting and this will not only drown a load of cute baby polar bears, it will also flood low-lying cities anywhere else in the world. Disaster! Easy enough to prove to your child that this is a lot of nonsense. There is no dispute that the ice in the Arctic might be at risk from record levels of melting. There is also little doubt that except in one or two atypical places, the Antarctic ice is growing thicker, so it’s only that pesky Arctic ice that we need to worry about. What would happen if all the ice in the Arctic melted tomorrow? It would surely have some effect upon sea levels; after all there is an awful lot of ice near the North Pole, isn’t there? Well, that’s right. There is loads of ice and no land at all; it is all floating in the water. To see what would happen if it all melted, let’s make our own Arctic Ice cap!

Take the largest clear glass bowl that you can find; the bigger the better. Fill it half full of water and then dump in as much floating ice as you can. Lots and lots of ice cubes, chunks of ice from elsewhere; just make sure that it is all floating, like the real Arctic ice. Now mark the level of the water and let the ice melt. You might expect that the water level would rise, but you would be dead wrong. Even when all the ice has melted, the water level is exactly the same as it was before. This is because ice expands when it freezes. Which is of course why it floats in water. You have now shown that if all the ice in the Arctic were to melt, it would make no difference at all to the world’s sea levels.

What might make a difference though, if the planet were to heat up, is thermal expansion. You can demonstrate this on the kitchen window-sill as well. Boil some water and then let it cool for a few seconds. Fill a clear glass jug with the very hot water and mark the level on the side. Now cover the top of the jug with tin foil or clingfilm, to prevent evaporation. You will find that as the water cools, the level goes down. In other words, hot water takes up more room than cold. If the oceans were to warm up, then sea levels would indeed rise. Not by very much of course, you can easily do the sums for this, but warming would cause a slight rise in sea levels.

The great advantage of home education is that you are free both to spend the day in experiments of this sort and also to avoid the majority views of society if you should wish to do so. This is very valuable, because it means that you and your child can learn to think for yourselves, without being browbeaten by the prevailing ideologies of the day. No wonder some people don’t like home education and feel that it is liable to produce dangerous mavericks and freethinkers! Not really all that good for society in general, perhaps.

Monday, 8 October 2012

On encouraging children to question what they hear and read

One of the great things about home education is that one is able to teach children that they should not rely too much upon what other people say, even if it is being said in newspapers or books. In other words, you can get them to start thinking for themselves. Schools are not very good at this, because of course it would be impossible to have a class of thirty children, all questioning everything that is said. School tends to deal in certainties, which is why for primary school pupils, ‘Sir said’ is much the same as being told, ‘Thus saith the Lord of Hosts’; in other words, the teacher’s word carries divine authority.

There are a number of good reasons to get children to challenge what other people take for granted and I shall be looking at one or two of these this week. Perhaps the most important is that many people lie and even more are grossly mistaken. This is the case with children’s non-fiction books as much as anywhere else and so these provide an excellent starting point in the teaching of scepticism and doubt in the word of others.

I have mentioned before here about our experiment in proving Galileo’s supposed ideas about two weights falling at the same speed, but it is worth repeating. Everybody knows that at the time of Galileo, people thought that heavier objects fell faster than light ones. He was an independent thinker and so did not take people’s word for this but carried out an experiment. He dropped a very heavy cannon ball and a tiny musket ball from a height, some say the leaning tower of Pisa, and saw that they both hit the ground simultaneously. This was a triumph of empirical science. This story is still repeated in children’s schoolbooks and is believed by almost everybody in the western world.

When my daughter was very small, we read about this and I decided to demonstrate the experiment for her, as she seemed dubious. To her too, it seemed clear that a heavy weight would hit the ground before a light one. We set up the experiment and I dropped a large rock and a small pebble from an upper story window, while my daughter observed from the ground. (I was careful to avoid dashing out her brains with a rock, you understand. There had at that time been some marital unpleasantness with my wife which centred around some of my zoo-related activities with the kid. I did not think that she would take kindly to hearing that I had been lobbing heavy rocks out of a first floor window at our daughter.)

Of course, the heavy rock hit the ground first every time. We varied the conditions and it made no difference at all. The accounts of the experiment that Galileo carried out were all wrong. This was quite staggering, since every book in the country says otherwise and took a bit of figuring out. In fact, Galileo said himself that this would happen and that the cannon ball would reach the ground first. His writing on this may be found in Two New Sciences, 1638.

Here was a case where every book in the library which mentions the subject is wrong. It was a revelation to my daughter. A little while later, we visited a museum with a beehive. She had been reading that bees build their hives with hexagonal cells, because this is the best way to cram as many into a given space. Amazing! How they know that? At the beehive, my daughter pointed out that the little cells were not hexagons at all; they were round. This was quite true and we found that by cramming together lots of little circles, you create the illusion of hexagons. Try it with coins. Each coin will end up surrounded by six others. It is just how circles behave; nothing at all to do with hexagons.

These are just two examples, but there were countless others. By the age of ten, my daughter had already become pretty sharp at spotting this sort of thing, not only by her own powers of observation, but by looking closely at how people were making claims and what evidence they were putting forward. There’s a trick you don’t often learn at school!

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Exploring prehistoric London

Massively off-topic and absolutely nothing to do with home education, but here by special request are a couple of self-guided walks which explore prehistoric London. They cover places that you will seldom find mentioned in tourist guides! If anybody is interested and wishes to email me, I can supply a few others.

The ritual landscape of Greenwich

We begin this walk from Greenwich High Road, which is a short walk from the Docklands railway station of Cutty Sark. We walk first up Croom's Hill, along the side of Greenwich Park. This is a very old road indeed. Croom in old Celtic meant crooked and the road does bend and twist as it ascends. The suggestion has been made that the Celtic name makes this the oldest road in Britain still in use. At the top of the hill, we veer right into Cade Road and then carry on along Shooters Hill, until we reach a small road on the right called Point Hill. On the left is Blackheath, a grassy common. Walking down Point Hill will reveal to our left a small area of grass, enclosed by railings, which is known locally as The Point. Until the nineteenth century, the Point was known as Maidenstone Hill. It is part of the chalk escarpment which runs from Shooters Hill towards London. Watling Street, the Roman Road from Canterbury to London ran along this ridge of high ground, before descending to Southwark. This is also the route of a Celtic track which ran from Canterbury to St Albans. The Point is a curious place. According to some of the more fanciful works on early London, a stone circle once stood here, but there is not a scrap of evidence for such a thing. The view of London across the nearby rooftops is spectacular. We are in effect standing on the edge of a cliff here; an unusual experience indeed in London!

Beneath the ground here is the series of caves known as Jack Cade's caverns or Blackheath caverns. These are almost certainly of prehistoric origin and were discovered accidentally in 1780. Photographs taken inside, when they were reopened briefly in 1938, indicate that they are a Dene Hole. These bell shaped caves are found throughout South east England and these caves are fairly typical examples. Dene Holes were dug in chalk in prehistoric times, chiefly in Kent. They were probably chalk mines; the chalk being used to improve the quality of agricultural land. Flint can also be obtained from chalk mines and it is perhaps the case that these caves provided both these very useful materials. These caves are unusual in that they contain both a well and also a carving on the wall of a horned god, possibly Cernnunos. A similar, but much smaller, carved chalk image of a goddess was found in Grime's Graves, a chalk mine in Norfolk. There has been extensive mining for chalk in this area, right up to modern times. A consequence of this is that the appearance of large holes in roads is not unknown. Because even so functional an activity as mining was seen in a religious context during the Bronze Age, it is by no means impossible that this site was used for worship as well as the extraction of minerals.

We retrace our steps now and enter Greenwich Park by the Croom's Hill Gate, which is on our right as we head back down Croom's Hill. The path ahead leads to grass, with a few trees scattered here and there. Unless one knew what to look for, it would be entirely possible to miss one of the most interesting pieces of London's ritual landscape which may still be seen more or less as it was created. On either side of the path are hillocks and bumps in the grass. Close examination reveals that these are round, like inverted saucers. In fact these are round barrows; burial mounds from the Bronze Age. Actually, they are even more interesting than that. These early Bronze Age barrows, which were dug in the chalk, were reused over a thousand years later by the Saxons. Greenwich is a Saxon settlement and they obviously recognised the barrows here as a burial ground. This is yet another example of continuity of use of a sacred place. The Saxons who first came to this country were not Christians.

At first glance, these barrows or tumuli do not look at all impressive. They are though only the last remaining examples of what was once a huge chain of these monuments stretching from Kent to London. Others are still scattered in odd locations within a few miles of these ones. A little west of Greenwich, near Woolwich Common, is the only surviving barrow of a group of seven. The others were razed during building work some years ago. It is to be found at the junction of Shrewsbury Lane and Brinklow Crescent. A mile away on Winn's Common lies another tumulus, almost invisible in the shaggy grass.

The barrows in Greenwich Park must have looked startling at one time. Because of the geology of this area, one does not need to dig deep before striking chalk. These mounds were perhaps shining white when first completed and would have been visible for miles around. We continue walking towards the building ahead, which is a planetarium. Skirting round this and carrying on in the same direction, we pass the bandstand on our right, before coming to a small area enclosed by iron railings. This is all that remains of the Romano-Celtic temple complex which once dominated the road to Londinium. All that now remains is a small block of mortar with brick tesserae embedded in it. At one time, it was thought that this might have been a Roman villa, but the discovery of coins and parts of a statue have shown it to have been a temple. The arm of a female figure holding a long, rod like object have been found here. The best guess is that this was a cult figure of Diana, goddess of the hunt. This shrine was the first building which one would encounter when arriving at Londinium from Canterbury or Dover. The road which runs alongside the park here, in the opposite direction from which we came, is called Maze Hill. There was once a turf maze here, traces of which may be seen when the grass is parched. If we walk back to the planetarium and turn right, the hills by the Royal Observatory will lead back to Greenwich High Road and the station.

From the source of the Walbrook to the Thames

We start this walk at Shoreditch High Street railway station. Leaving the station, we walk along Bethnal Green Road, taking the third turning on the left, Club Row, which takes us to the site of Friars' Mount, which is now the large, circular garden called Arnold Circus.

There is something of a mystery about this public garden. The Walbrook rises from several sources a little to the North of the City of London. In prehistoric times, this was all marshland and the name of the Moorgate district reflects this. One of the principle springs which merged to become the Walbrook, started near St Leonard's church in Shoreditch. In addition to the spring itself, there were two other notable features in this part of London. One was a sacred well; the so-called Holy Well. This well gave its name to the Augustinian priory which was founded nearby in what is now Holywell lane. The Holywell priory was built on the site of the original holy well, almost certainly a case of the Christian church appropriating a pre-existing sacred site. Near to the well was an artificial mound called simply The Mount. It later became known as Friars' Mount, by association with the monastery. The Mount was probably another example of a Tot Hill such as was raised on Thorney Island and it may or may not still exist.

In the late nineteenth century, this part of Shoreditch had become a slum know as the Old Nichol. It covered much of the area between Old Street and Brick Lane and had become so notorious as a rookery or slum district that eventually it was swept away in a huge development of houses and flats for the working classes. Much of this redevelopment centred upon the site of Friars' Mount and a public garden was planted where Friars' Mount once stood. This garden is still there; it is called Arnold Circus and it is where we now stand. It will be seen at once that the garden at Arnold Circus is in fact a large mound; it is about fifteen feet high. Alfred Watkins believed this to be the original prehistoric mound of Friars' Mount and incorporated it into one of his Ley Lines. There is however some doubt as to whether this is really the remains of Friars' Mount at all. During a dig in 2009, the Museum of London discovered that a good deal of this mound was composed of rubble from the demolition of the Old Nichol slum. The suspicion was that it had all been piled into a heap and then planted with trees and flowers. In short, far from being a pre-Roman mound, this was no more than a massive Victorian rubbish dump!

There is a question mark about this explanation though, which seems to leave open the possibility that part at least of the garden at Arnold Circus is genuinely ancient. If thousands of old bricks, pieces of old tile, and cartloads of builders' rubble were to be piled fifteen feet high and a layer of gravel spread over the heap, it would not really be a fertile environment for planting trees and bushes, nor for establishing flower beds. And yet, as may readily be seen by glancing around, this mound seems to be covered with tress and bushes. In the centre of the garden, where there is a tarmac surface and a bandstand, there may well be some nineteenth century hardcore, but the bulk of the mound is made up of earth.

It might be unwise to attach to much attention to the legends and lore of primary school children, but before undertaking their excavation, Museum of London staff asked local residents how much they knew about the raised garden. Children in nearby flats believed that an ancient king was buried beneath the mound with a hoard of treasure! Far fetched as it might be, one is tempted to wonder if this could be a genuine folk memory of a barrow grave. Still with the lore of schoolchildren, something like a taboo is attached to this mound. There is a school nearby and plenty of families, but one never sees children playing here. Some parents do not like the place and forbid their children to enter the garden.

Whatever its origins, there is something a little other worldly about the Arnold Circus garden. There is certainly nothing like it anywhere else in London and it is hard to avoid the suspicion that this might indeed be the remains of some sort of mound dating from before the Roman occupation. It is by no means inconceivable that the slums of Old Nichol were built over Friars' Mount, which was revealed once more during the demolition.

Leaving Arnold Circus by Calvert Avenue, we arrive at Shoreditch High Street and then turn left. The church on our right, just before we turn into the High Street, is St Leonard's. This is one of the churches whose bells feature in the nursery rhyme, Oranges and Lemons. We are now heading South along the route of Ermine Street, a major Roman Road which led from London to Lincoln. The fourth turning on the right is Holywell Lane, where the priory used to be. The Holy Well itself was also somewhere in this vicinity. There can be little doubt that this area once formed part of the ritual landscape to the North of the Thames. A prehistoric mound, a holy well, boggy land and a spring all suggest this. When we see that a Christian religious house has been built over the top of this spot and the very name of the holy well adopted by the church, this practically clinches the matter. Walking down towards the City of London, we come first to Shoreditch and the Bishopsgate. The Walbrook runs alongside to our right, flowing under Liverpool Street Station. The area around the station was a huge Roman graveyard which lay just North of Londinium and stretched as far as Spitalfields. In 1999, an elaborate Roman coffin was found there.

Shortly after passing Liverpool Street Station on the right, we come to Camomile Street on the left and Wormwood Street on the right, which leads on to London Wall. This was where Ermine Street left Londonium. There was a gate in the city wall at this point. We turn right at this point into Wormwood street and walk along until we rejoin the Walbrook as it flowed under the wall at Moorgate. It was near here that many skulls were recovered from the bed of the river in the nineteenth century. In addition to human skulls, many face pots have also been found in the valley of the Walbrook. Almost all the complete examples known come from this area. Turning left into Moorgate, we walk above the course of the river towards the Bank of England. When we reach Lothbury we turn left and find the church of St Margaret's Lothbury. The vaults of this church were built over the Walbrook. Crossing the road, we arrive at the Bank of England, We are now in the valley of the Walbrook and the river still flows beneath our feet. During building works at the Bank of England, the Walbrook was seen flowing beneath the basement. Across the road is Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London. This too sits immediately above the course of the Walbrook, another curious instance of important buildings in the capital being located above old rivers.

Leading East is Cornhill, which was one of the two hills upon which Roman London was founded. The basilica was on Cornhill, it is now buried beneath Leadenhall Market. In the opposite direction, Cheapside points the way to Ludgate Hill. On the bank of the Walbrook near here stood a temple dedicated to Mithras. Mithraism, which had its roots in Persia, was a religion popular with Roman soldiers. Curiously, it was very much concerned with the death of a horned animal, a bull, whose sacrificial blood brought salvation. We have encountered this motif of the horned animal so often, that it should not really come as a surprise that a cult in London had at its heart the death of a bull. When this temple was discovered during building work in 1954, it created a sensation. Crowds queued for hours in order to view the archaeological site. It was hoped to preserve the building in situ, but this proved impossible. It was moved a few hundred yards to Victoria Street, which runs South West from Mansion House. It is worth visiting; the only temple to be excavated in the city.

Walking a few yards down Victoria Street brings us to the temple of Mithras on the left. Although this is the only temple discovered in London, there is a suspicion that the lower valley of the Walbrook near here was a religious area, with the banks of the stream being perhaps lined with temples and shrines.

Returning to mansion House, we walk down Walbrook. This street runs parallel with the river, which is about a hundred yards to the right and heading in the same direction that we are. Half way along this street on the right hand side was where the temple of Mithras was originally found. When we reach Cannon Street, we pause for a moment. To the right, there is a perceptible dip in cannon Street, marking the place where the river crosses the street towards the Thames. It is very easy to see when looking up and down Cannon Street that this is a river valley. We turn left and walk up Cannon Street for a short distance. Set in the wall of an empty shop is an unremarkable piece of white stone This is the London Stone and it has a very long history. According to some legends, this is part of an altar to Diana from a temple built by the Trojan prince Brutus which supposedly stood on Ludgate Hill. A more probably theory is that it is a Roman milestone, from which distances to the city were measured. What is certain is that it has been a part of the London scene for at least a thousand years and possibly twice as long.

We retrace our steps and cross Walbrook, heading for the dip in the road which marks the course of the Walbrook. We cross Cannon Street and then walk into Cloak Lane. 'Cloak' is a corruption of the Latin Cloaca, meaning sewer, which gives us an idea of how the Walbrook was treated by the time that it had reached this far in its journey to the Thames. If we walk to the Thames embankment, it is possible actually to see the Walbrook discharging into the Thames about a hundred yards to the West of Cannon Street railways Station. It is only possible to see this at low tide. We can now walk back to Cannon Street tube and railway station.

The task of Sisyphus

Readers with a smattering of erudition will no doubt catch the above allusion, which is to an ancient king condemned by the gods for his hubris. He was doomed to spend eternity rolling a heavy boulder up a hill each day; only to see it roll down again at nightfall, leaving him to attempt the task anew each morning. I know the feeling!

I set out a few weeks ago to explore the rationale behind the Welsh Assembly’s efforts to enforce compulsory registration and monitoring of home educated children. I hoped to do this by looking at a new aspect of the case each day and in this way gradually building up an understanding of what was going on. I need not have bothered. Even establishing the simplest and least controversial of facts proved too much and so I  have abandoned the attempt. Perhaps this was the intention of some of those commenting here?

To give an example of what I mean, I took two things for granted recently; two things connected with home education which are absolutely and incontrovertibly true and about which there cannot be the slightest doubt. Even with these simple facts, I found myself bombarded with objections and argument. No wonder we never got past the initial stages of considering the proposed Welsh legislation!

Here are the two, very basic and obvious statements which caused such debate;

The five outcomes of the Every Child Matters agenda were incorporated into the 2004 Children Act and are now the law of England

There has for years been a concerted campaign by some home education organisations and academics against the concept of a ‘broad and balanced curriculum’

Now I was not inviting readers to decide whether a couple of propositions from Russell’s Principia Mathematica were veridical. I was presenting two pieces of information, both of which had a bearing on discussions about the new Welsh law, and using them as givens so that we could look more closely at what is going on in the minds of those both in Wales and England who are demanding further powers with regard to home education.

It was a hopeless endeavour and  I shall according leave the topic of the Welsh legislation alone for the foreseeable future and concentrate more upon my own idiosyncratic views and opinions of things relating to home education in England. There is also, incidentally, the fact that I am currently writing three non-fiction books and a novel simultaneously and this is taxing even my powers,  to the extent that I have less time to engage in debate with those commenting here. Since it is discourteous to ignore comments, it seems better to limit myself for a while to posts such as this, to which nobody could really take exception.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Home educated children and the 'broad and balanced curriculum'

Regular readers will know that I am something of a connoisseur of hypocrisy among home educators. Not that I believe there to be more hypocrisy among them than the general population, but rather that some of the more prominent among them tend to be very po-faced and sanctimonious and so the hypocrisy is all the more entertaining.

A few days ago on the television news, Robert Goddard of ATL, a teaching union, said this:

`All evidence suggests that whilst some young people that are home educated do get a broad and balanced curriculum, there's a lot of evidence that suggests that quite a few of them don't. We feel that registration and monitoring of that provision will help towards all young people getting those skills and knowledge that they need to excel in life’

Inevitably, some home educators promptly went mad and accused him of a ‘slur’ against home educating parents. What evidence did he have that quite a few home educated children were not getting a broad and balanced curriculum?

Well of course, anybody who took part in the Graham Badman enquiry and the associated fuss will know full well that an awful lot of home educators were and are bitterly opposed to giving their children a ‘broad and balanced curriculum’. They have a visceral dislike of any curriculum; especially one which is broad and balanced. The concept of broad and balanced curriculum was regularly denounced on home educating blogs, forums and lists as a coercive tool, one which right-thinking home educators should reject. Here are Alan Thomas and Harriet Patterson explaining why they don’t think it is necessary for home educated children. See section 5 of the following:

Last year, the Department for Education website said this about home education:

'parents do not have to follow the National Curriculum. However, parents should deliver a broad and balanced curriculum'

This caused such anger among many home educators that Fiona Nicholson got together with Ian Dowty to try and make them remove it. The very idea, that home educating parents should be delivering a broad and balanced curriculum! It was outrageous!

And so a few years down the line, after having fought vociferously for their right not to provide their children with a broad and balanced curriculum, somebody from one of the teaching unions notices this and remarks upon it. He is at once attacked. How dare he suggest that quite a few home educated children are not receiving a broad and balanced curriculum? Why, it is a thing beloved of home educators, all of whom do their very best to ensure that their children receive such a curriculum.

This is such a monumentally awful piece of barefaced hypocrisy, that it goes straight into the Simon Webb Hall of Hypocrisy Fame. Indeed, I think that it will be a strong contender for the Seth Pecksniff Memorial Prize for Arrant Hypocrisy. Seriously, has anybody ever heard a better example of the doublethink which goes on in the world of British home education?

Friday, 5 October 2012

Alternative provision funding, colleges and home education

A difficulty with some home educating parents is that once they have been out of touch with mainstream education for a while, they rather forget how things work. This is leading to yet another confrontation, this time regarding the alternative provision funding which Westminster makes to local authorities for children under sixteen who attend colleges rather than schools.

I must say, before I point out why this scheme is doomed, that I cannot for the life of me see why any parent in her senses would want to send her fourteen year-old daughter to a further education college, where she would be mixing at once not with other fourteen year-olds, but with young men of eighteen or nineteen. This seems quite mad to me, but then it is really no affair of mine. Let us ask why local authorities, schools and colleges would all be very wary about such an enterprise and probably try and stop it dead in its tracks if humanly possible.

What we have to bear in mind is that many fourteen year-olds currently at school, particularly the more mature ones, do not like being kept at school. They hate being treated as children, dislike wearing uniform, do not really want to call adults ‘Sir’ or need to ask permission to visit the lavatory and so on. They remain at school because most of their parents are unable or unwilling to educate them at home. If a method existed though whereby they could simply move from school to college and study there, there would be a great demand for it. In the last few months, it has started to become known that this is possible. All the parents have to do is de-register their children, allow them to ’deschool’ by watching television or playing computer games for a few months and then apply for a place at college. I know of at least one parent who has been bounced into doing this by her fourteen year-old son. She would not have dreamed of home educating, but is quite happy for her son to transfer to the local college. If the idea becomes widely known and catches on, there will be many more such parents.

If the present trickle were to become a flood, this would cause a massive change in further education colleges. At the moment, because nearly all the students are over sixteen, nobody needs to worry much about things like the age of consent, which kids are heading off to the pub at lunchtime, stringent child protection policies and a host of other things. If it is known that two students of seventeen have nipped back to somebody’s house and had sex at lunchtime; nobody cares. The situation would be very different if the place had a substantial proportion of fourteen and fifteen year-olds. It would quickly become a nightmare, with the lecturers having to assume the responsibilities of teachers acting in loco parentis. The students at college are currently past the age of compulsory education and this affects how the staff view them. This too would change if there were a lot of fourteen year-olds about.

There are other problems. The funding would tend to flow form the schools to the colleges. This would screw up the finances for local authorities. What would be the reaction for the general public if instead of children being kept on school premises, they were wandering around the town at all sorts of odd times? Why just fourteen year-olds? Why not thirteen or even eleven and twelve year-olds?

As long as arrangements of this sort were informal and rare, nobody much minded the occasional fourteen year-old attending college to study. It has been going on from time to time for many years. This is quite a different thing from making it an official policy of which anybody may take advantage. One final point and this really does puzzle me, is this. I can understand parents wishing to assume responsibility for their fourteen year-old child’s education; I did so myself. If they no longer wish to do so, if they want others to undertake the job on their behalf, then there exists a nationwide network of institutions dedicated to that end. Such places are present in even the smallest villages and will educate children whose parents do not wish to do so for themselves. These places are called schools and if home educating parents wish to stop educating their children at home then they can always send them to one of these establishments. Why must home educators try to ensure that the entire secondary educational system in the country is altered, indeed revolutionised,  for their convenience?

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Getting into university, or not

One of the saddest things one ever encounters in the world of home education is watching that moment when a parent realises that the dogged pursuit of ideology has irrevocably screwed up a child’s life. Sometimes this moment is almost invisible. For example, seeing a mother on a blog who says, ‘We have decided not to do GCSEs’. Because it is of course parents who arrange and pay for the taking of such examinations, this may be translated as, ‘ have decided that my child will not be taking GCSEs’. Sometimes, this particular decision is not altogether catastrophic for a home educated child. It is still possible to find some Further Education colleges which will allow a child in without GCSEs, although this is becoming rarer every year. Even then, it will seldom be for A levels and so the parent’s decision has effectively restricted the kid’s life chances at the age of twelve or thirteen. Even if she takes A levels, many universities will raise their eyebrows if she applies without having any GCSEs as well.

What is even worse that the above scenario is the parents who steadfastly refuses, and teaches her child to refuse, to consider gaining any formal qualifications up to the age of seventeen and then still hopes to be able to swing a place at university. Often, these people have been lured on in their folly by the story of Ian Dowty’s son getting into Oxford without any GCSEs or A levels and are unaware of the background to this story. They breeze up to some university in the Russell Group when their daughter or son is seventeen and try to get the child in on the strength of a portfolio or life experiences. This is truly tragic, because they have not the slightest chance of succeeding in this endeavour. Here is a very well-known home educator having this ‘Eureka’ moment of discovery last week. She writes:

Has anyone had any success with Edinburgh University?

We've just had a disappointing response to my home educating daughter's enquiry about what they 'need' for entrance. The bod suggests that my daughter put her home educating experience in her 'personal statement' and I feel like suggesting where the bod should put a copy of her mechanical response to student enquiries.

It's the usual demand for A levels or an Access Course.

Yet when we went up for the Open Day the head of the department was quite positive about her chances.


P.S. She wants to study Japanese at University level and Edinburgh's MA is 'supposed' to be the 'best'.

I find this almost literally unbelievable. Approaching one of the best universities in the United Kingdom without any A levels and hoping for her child to be given a place on the say-so of the mother! I am particularly enchanted by the anger she expresses towards Edinburgh University, as though it is somehow their fault that she has not arranged for her daughter to take A levels! Here is a woman who took her daughter on a misguided and foolish educational journey, only to find that the result is likely to be complete failure for the child. Can anybody imagine anything sadder?

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

If closer monitoring of home education in New Zealand and the USA does no good, why would we need it in this country?

In recent days two linked objections have been raised to the proposition that new legislation is needed in this country to regulate home education. The first is that increasing or decreasing monitoring in two other countries does not seem to affect the outcomes for home education there; the second that there is no evidence that there is anything wrong with the current arrangements in this country and that consequently there is no need for any new law. I want today to examine the first of these ideas, that it is possible and worthwhile to compare home education in this country with that in New Zealand and America. I strongly suspect that those making this claim know as well as I do why it is impossible to compare home education in this country with either New Zealand or the United States, but working on the assumption that there will be readers who do not understand the difficulties, I shall try briefly to outline the problem.

Let us begin by looking at the most recent investigation into motives for home education in the United Kingdom. This was conducted in Wales, but there is no reason to suppose that the findings are not also applicable to England. The full report may be found here:

What was discovered about the motives for home education? The report says:

Broadly, from the responses gathered at this stage, the motivations of the Home Educating community can be seen to fall into four categories on a spectrum and, in this description, in no order of percentage choice.

1. Response to behavioural /attendance issues

The extreme stance expressed by some authorities that the majority of HE parents choose HE to avoid prosecution when they and/or their children simply disengage with education is not endorsed by this initial scoping, but it is the primary experience of the EWS in relation to HE and, as such, is perceived to be a much more significant motivation than it is in actuality.

2. Lifestyle choices

At the other end of the spectrum, the political position of some home educators is that the family unit and not the state has primary responsibility for the education of the child and therefore that education is most suitably and efficiently delivered in the family context. Other ‘alternative’ lifestyle choices include those of the traveller communities, or various religious perspectives.

3. Curricular/structural issues

Between these two poles are children and families opting out of the mainstream, not to disengage from education, but after struggling with, and giving up on, the curriculum or structural difficulties of school life, be it the size, the length of day or the interaction with some teachers.

4. Special social, emotional, health or learning needs

Towards the choice of HE as a lifestyle are those opting out of the mainstream because of social, emotional or other learning challenges, delicate health issues, difficulties with transition, or, most particularly, the experience of bullying. This appears to be the largest group in the spectrum. Many of these, though originally choosing reactively away from school, do seem to find HE particularly suitable to meeting, or allowing for, those particular needs and come to embrace this alternative educational experience as a proactive and positive decision.

Lest anybody object that this research was carried out by those opposed to home education and accordingly biased against the practice, let us recall that Paula Rothermel found pretty much the same thing when she surveyed British home educators. The main motives that she found were things such as, ‘having a close family relationship and being together’.

Now I find all this pretty astounding.   I was sure that I could provide my daughter with a better education than she would receive at school and it therefore made sense from a purely educational perspective not to send her to school. Such people as me are mentioned in the list of motives, but one does not get the impression that they are a majority or even a significant proportion.  I have an idea, which is borne out by what little research has been conducted in this country, that very few parents in Britain home educate for purely educational motives of this sort. Research by both Paula Rothermel and Education Otherwise confirms this. When Education Otherwise sent out two and a half thousand questionairres, the main reasons that were given for home education were bullying and lifestyle. Education per se did not seem to be a big factor in the decision to home educate.

In America, the situation is very different. The largest piece of research carried out there into the motives for home education, that carried out by The National Centre for Education Statistics in America, showed that 50% of those asked about their motives gave as the answer, ‘Can give child a better education at home’. This indicates that the commonest motives for home education in America are very different from those in this country. There, parents tend to choose the practice because they believe that they can provide a better academic education. In the UK, it is at best a lifestyle choice relating to wanting to be close to the children and at worst, a reaction to problems at school. In other words, British parents are not in general choosing home education for educational reasons.

It must be fairly clear that if, as tends more commonly to be the case, American home educators are primarily concerned with good academic education, then their children are likely to be achieving highly; regardless of whether or not they are being checked by the authorities. To try and compare this situation with that in this country is pointless. Most parents here are either forced into a position where they feel they have no choice in the matter or wish to keep their children at home as part of a lifestyle choice. This means that we are not able to draw any useful conclusions by the American experience of monitoring and regulation. Unless somebody is able to come up with evidence that home educating parents in New Zealand are very similar in their motivations to those in this country, we may probably disregard what has happened there as well. All of which means that when considering new legislation, we would be well advised to restrict ourselves to thinking about what is happening in this country and not trying to rope in America and New Zealand.

What is happening in this country and what does the evidence suggest? I shall be looking at this in the next few days.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Clearing the ground…

One of the frustrating things about this blog is that I often assume that readers, being composed in the main of home educators and former home educators, will share with me a common knowledge about the situation regarding home education in this country. Many do not and I find myself having to explain even the most basic details before I can even think of progressing to a discussion of more complex matters, such as the possible need for new legislation. To give one example of this, somebody is still arguing on a thread which began a few days ago as to whether the five outcomes of the Every Child Matters agenda are binding in law. This is important, because any and all debates at every child protection conference in England will be dominated by Every Child Matters and the five outcomes. If the five outcomes are, as some described them in the comments here, no more than, ‘a policy of the last government’ or part of ‘a discussion paper’, then why on earth are social workers, teachers and local authority legal departments behaving as though they are the law of the land? It is this kind of nonsense that makes it very hard to get a proper discussion going here.

Every Child Matters was a green paper, largely concerned with child protection. One of its key recommendations was that professionals involved with children, including local authorities as a whole, should work actively to ensure that every child had access to five outcomes. These are; to be healthy, to stay safe, to enjoy and achieve, to make a positive contribution and to achieve economic wellbeing. The green paper gave rise to an act; the Children Act 2004. This enshrined in law some of the Every Child Matters agenda. For instance, the five outcomes became legal duties for local authorities to work towards. The wording was changed slightly and so the original five outcomes from ECM became;

physical and mental health and emotional well-being; .
protection from harm and neglect; .
education, training and recreation; .
the contribution made by them to society; .
social and economic well-being.

This means that the five outcomes of Every Child Matters are now part of the law of England and everybody working with children is mindful of this. Local authorities have a duty to work towards ensuring that all children in their area have access to these outcomes. It will be observed that education is one of them. The section about economic well-being is also connected with education, because the more qualifications a child gains, the more likely she is to get a good job and stop being poor.

I am aware, and so are local authorities, that some non- statutory guidance suggests that the 2004 Act lays no new duty upon local authorities as regards elective home education, but there is more to the case than that. I don’t propose to discuss that in detail; all that I felt I needed to do was demonstrate that the five outcomes of the Every Child Matters agenda are alive and well and that local authorities have a binding legal duty to ensure that every single child in their area, not just those at school, have access to them.

Having cleared up this misunderstanding, I hope in the next few days to return to the question of the urgent need for new legislation.