Tuesday, 31 July 2012

On compelling and forbidding children



Commenting here recently, somebody expressed interest in how I had been able to forbid my child certain things without creating arguments and tension. This strikes me as such a simple business, that I was at first reluctant to devote a piece to the subject. Assuming that the question was meant seriously though, I shall outline the methods used to ensure that a child does not do or even ask for those things of which you, as parent, disapprove. I will not go into the ethics of the case, merely the mechanics of the process.

My daughter was forbidden to watch television or eat ice cream or sweets. Television was a simple and straightforward matter. Because she did not go to nursery or school, she was unaware that slumping alone in front of a screen, watching cartoons and other rubbish, was the main and preferred leisure activity of many children, and adults too for that matter. We have only a fourteen inch screen, anyway, so it is hardly a prominent feature in the home. She grew up never once seeing her parents watch television. If there was something we wished to see, we recorded it and watched it once she was in bed. For her, the very concept of watching a live broadcast was wholly unknown and so she did not know that she was missing out on anything. She would not even have asked to watch television, because she did not realise that ’watching television’ was an activity in itself.

Films about nature and programmes about science are a valuable learning tool and so I used to tape those and let her watch them with me as a treat. It was invariably a shared activity and she never once sat down alone in front of the television. She enjoyed seeing things like the ’Science in Action’ schools’ programmes and David Attenborough and I used these as a reward, a way that we could unwind together. Because this was how our home was constituted, it did not seem odd to her and she never once asked to ’watch television’. Now that she is home for the summer at the age of eighteen, there are of course no restrictions at all upon what she may or may not do. Since she returned a month ago, she has not once switched on the television set. The virtues of early conditioning!

Ice creams were a slightly different case. I would only let her have one when we visited the seaside in the summer. She never asked for one at any other time, because she knew it would have been pointless.

The way to establish such routines and ensure that the child obeys them unquestioningly is by absolute consistency. If you fall into that all too common habit of intermittent reinforcement, whereby you sometimes give in to your child’s requests for a generally forbidden item or activity; then you are lost. Like a gambler who has once won the jackpot, the child will get into the way of nagging and pleading until you give in. I never once varied these rules when she was small and she accordingly knew that there was no point even raising the subject.

I had supposed that things like this were common knowledge among the more enlightened type of parent, but judging from a few comments here, this is perhaps not always the case. There is no cruelty involved in the thing; the child who grows up without ever watching a television broadcast, will not miss it. She cannot possibly do so; the very concept is unknown to her. We cannot miss what we have never known. The case of ice creams is a little different, as my daughter did see other children enjoying them. She knew though that the rule was as fixed and immutable as that of the Medes and Persians. Even if she felt any longing for such a thing at times other than when we were visiting the seaside; she knew that it was hopeless to ask. I do not think it at all a bad thing for children to learn that there are things that they cannot have, no matter how much they might want them. As God He knows, this is a lesson that they need to learn in life and the sooner the better!

‘A’s are for losers…


I have had to abandon this blog for a while to meet a deadline, however, normal service is now resumed. I shall be looking in the next couple of days at the idea of compulsion, which seems to be so baffling to at least one reader; compulsion in her mind being associated only with punishment or physical force! Before that, I want to talk about the awful situation at British secondary schools, with reference to what are known as grade boundaries. These have a pernicious effect upon children unfortunate enough to attend school.

When my daughter was studying for both GCSEs and A levels, I had a saying that I used frequently with her. This was, ‘A's are for losers!’ I meant to convey by this that if she gained only an ‘A’ in an examination, rather than ‘A*’; then as far as I was concerned, she would have failed that particular examination. Nothing less than 100% was satisfactory, whether she was working at home with me or sitting an IGCSE. There are a number of possibilities for this attitude on my part. One would be that I am a man obsessed with GCSEs and their importance in life. Another might perhaps be that I am a male, Caucasian version of the notorious Chinese ‘Tiger Mothers’. A third and, to me at least, more likely explanation would be that I am not a bloody fool and that I know how the world actually works outside of school and examinations. Let me make this a little clearer.

In a deplorable lapse of judgement, I allowed my older daughter to be registered at school. Apart from a spell of flexi-schooling, she was at school all the way through until leaving at sixteen. When she was fifteen, a year or so before she was due to take her GCSEs, I noticed that her maths was atrocious. She was getting around half the questions wrong and yet her teacher was marking the work with things like, ‘Well done’. When I spoke to this woman she explained that from her point of view this was fine. It was not because my daughter was unable to do any better, it was that there would have been no point. In the GCSE, which mark you get depends on the percentage of marks you score. These are the grade boundaries. Incredibly, if you get over 50%, you get an ‘A’ in mathematics for GCSE. Over 70% and you will have an ‘A*’ Because my daughter was in line for at least an ‘A’ and possibly an ‘A*’, she was doing as well as could possibly be achieved. What purpose would have been served by trying to get her to get three quarters of her work right? It would have been overkill; way over the grade boundary for an ‘A*’. I resisted the temptation to slay this idiot on the spot; in retrospect, a matter of some regret.

Let’s forget for a moment about schools and GCSEs. I have only recently, after a long struggle, resolved the problems I have been having with the Student Finance people over the loan my daughter is getting for university. I sent in almost everything necessary. The only problem related to an income of £60.75, for which I provided no documentation and had overlooked when filling out the form. You might have thought that they would have given me a gold star for this, or at the very least congratulated me on getting over 95% of the calculations correct. Even a ‘Well done’ would have been nice. They did none of these things, because of course this is real life. Anything less than 100% accuracy means that you fail. It is the same with my tax returns. It is not enough for me to get 70% of the answers right. This will not earn me an ‘A*’ with the Inland Revenue. Not even 80% will do, nor 90% or even 95%. Every figure and all calculations must be 100% correct.

This principle, that of getting 100% all the time in maths is how we have to live our real lives. Whether we are looking at out bank statement, measuring the room for a fitted carpet or working out the change from a £20 note; nothing less than 100% will do. Saying ‘Well done!’ to a child for getting a third of her sums wrong is a false kindness. It does not matter a damn if that will be enough to get her an ‘A*’ at GCSE; getting a lot of sums wrong in real life will be a disaster for her. The same is true of practically every other aspect of life. If I write out a job application and only make errors in spelling a quarter of the words, this will not earn me an ‘A*’ from the potential employer. He will probably dismiss me as illiterate.

Real life is very unforgiving. Most of the time we need to get things right. The penalties for getting things wrong can be pretty severe and you are not awarded marks for effort either! Anybody who does not expect a child to get things 100% right in maths, English or any other subject is leaving the child ill-prepared for the real world. Real life is not about GCSEs or A levels. It is about getting figures 100% right, making sure that not one word is misspelled nor a single capital letter or full stop omitted. Teaching children this and being ferociously demanding about it is the only strategy that will fit them out for the adult world in which they will all too soon find themselves.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Education hashtags on Twitter

Somebody asked me to post this link, in the hope that it would prove helpful to some home educators;

http://www.onlinecollege.org/2012/07/30/the-complete-parents-list-education-hashtags-twitter/

Friday, 27 July 2012

Another duplicate of this blog...

A while ago, somebody found a blog devoted to this blog, copying practically every post. It was suggested that I was, for what reason I cannot imagine, running a duplicate blog. Now I have come across another such blog, apparently devoted only to publishing stuff from here. It is at:

http://dosesofnourishment.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/the-education-committee-considers.html


I am not bothered about this, but wonder if somebody knows why this should happen?  Is it just this blog, or are other people's blogs copied like this by strangers for some purpose?

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Finita, la commedia


I dare say that loyal readers were made anxious a couple of weeks ago when I announced that Nikki Harper, ably assisted by Maire Stafford and Mike Fortune-Wood, was trying to have me arrested for a criminal offence. This supposed offence was poking fun at her on this blog. When she contacted the Lincolnshire police on July 11th, she did not put it in quite that way of course. Instead, she suggested that she was a victim of harassment, contrary to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. It was a brave and inexpensive attempt to get at me, once she had discovered that bringing an action against me for libel would have ruined her financially.

I have gained a great deal of pleasure from this whole affair. It is the first time in sixty odd years that I have been accused of a crime and so it was a novel and interesting experience for that reason  alone. Even better was the discovery that Nikki Harper was every bit as excitable and verbose when speaking to a police officer as she was when complaining to Lincolnshire County Council about a circular letter which she received from them. The police file on Mrs Harper’s views and opinions about me and my blog is extensive, because of course she was unable to keep to the point without bringing astrology and spiritualism into the matter. One is reminded of Mr Dick from David Copperfield, who, it will be recalled, was unable to write anything with introducing King Charles’ head into the case.

When first Mrs Harper told them that this was a case of online harassment, the police assumed that I had been sending her abusive or threatening communications via email. Either that or pestering her family and friends by contacting them and saying things about her.  When, after some time, it merged that what had actually happened was that she had blogged unpleasantly about me and I her and that she had been coming onto my blog and rowing with me via the comments, they rather lost interest. It might be annoying for somebody to tease you on a blog; it is not a criminal offence.

I wonder if anybody can guess what advice the police gave Mrs Harper, if she wished to avoid becoming distressed and upset by me and my blog in the future? Yes, they told her that the best thing she could do was to avoid contacting me or having any further communications at all with me. They also suggested that if I had been telling lies about her, she might pursue a civil remedy. Case closed.

As a matter of interest, one of the things that this well known astrologer was irritated about was what she described as ’malicious tagging’ in my posts here. She told me in a comment here  that she objected to this. On July 6th, for example, she asked me, ’ What are your reasons for tagging this post with "Ashby Spiritualist Church"?’ She went on to suggest that this was part of a smear campaign against her. Talk of a 'smear campaign' leads one to suppose of course that she had no connection with the 'church'. The problem is that when you are writing for the Huffington Post about home education and introduce yourself there as an astrologer, that does rather bring the subject into the debate. When you are using your articles there to promote a book aimed at dragging  young people into this mad belief system and getting them to subscribe to this nonsense, that too makes your views on both  astrology and what is described as, 'mind, body, spirit',  a fair matter of comment. As for the Ashby Spiritualist Church, the linking of which with her name Mrs Harper views as a 'smear campaign'; she is being less than candid. Here she is promoting and advertising it in a tweet from March 1st this year:



http://en.twitter.com/SpiritOdyssey/status/175181439803994112





You can hardly demonstrate your involvement with the place one minute and then the next go racing  off to the police and say that you are being criminally harassed because somebody has  linked  your name to it on a blog!

Anyway, this will mercifully be the last mention here of Nikki Harper; a matter of some relief to us all. As long as she follows the advice of the police and avoids coming here or communicating with me, I see no reason why there should be any further contact between us. I am sure that this will be a great relief to her as well as me. She is currently in the process of trying to take Lincolnshire County Council to a judicial review for what she sees as their unlawful policies. This is proving harder than expected and will,  I think,  be enough to keep her out of mischief and away from here for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

On the teaching of subjects about which one knows nothing at all


I have explored the notion in recent days of a ‘hidden curriculum’, which guides parents and children towards focusing on some areas of education to the neglect or even  exclusion of others. Some people avoid mathematics, for example, or science, and concentrate instead upon creative activities.

In my case, it was the opposite. I was confident of dealing with solid academic stuff like history and physics, but felt disinclined to bother with things like art, music and acting. For that reason, I deliberately set out to make sure that my daughter achieved at least  as much in those fields as she would in conventional school subjects.

Take acting. How on earth does somebody who knows nothing about it and has no interest in the matter, teach this? It was easy enough. Our family has always been one for playing parlour games, rather than watching television. So I made sure that we also played games which would help with drama; games like charades, where people take it in turn to act out the titles of a book, film or play. We also devised a version of this which we called Biblical Charades, which entailed acting out a scene from scripture. (This version is only suitable for mad people who spend a lot of time reading the Bible, of course, into which category we unfortunately fall.) Another good game is one where you make two piles of slips of paper. On one pile you have activities written down; mowing the lawn, making toast, reading the paper and so on. The other pile consists of adverbs; sadly, cheerfully, slowly, thoughtfully and as many others as you can think of. Each person then takes a piece of paper from each heap and tries to mime the appropriate actions; for instance ‘doing the washing up angrily’. This is really good for getting a child to move about, to act in fact. Reading out loud expressively is also good practice for drama. Getting a child to vary her voice, put on different accents and generally bring the thing to life.

Another way of encouraging an interest in and appreciation of acting in a small child is by taking her to the theatre. There is a lot of nonsense talked about how boring children find Shakespeare, but that is because it is often just read out in a classroom. That really is boring and would be enough to put anybody off! I took my daughter to plays by Shakespeare, as many as we could manage. She first sat through an entire play of this sort when she had just turned seven. In fact, for a child of that age, a visit to the theatre is even more exciting than going to the cinema. Obviously, you have to do activities beforehand to explain the plot and so on and look at the context. It is good to have the animated Shakespeare plays on DVD as well, to watch. By the time she was fourteen my daughter had seen eight plays by Shakespeare, as well as other plays by authors as varied as Gogol, Ibsen, Shaw, Tennessee Williams, J B Priestly, Arthur Miller and Christopher Marlow. Going to the theatre became one of her main enjoyments during childhood.

As for actually taking examinations with LAMDA, this was very straightforward and a lot of fun. The specifications are freely available. They may be found here:



http://www.lamda.org.uk/exams/downloads/documents/LAMDAGradedExaminationsinPerformancev3v3web.pdf



As you can see, no knowledge of teaching drama is needed. Can you encourage your child to speak clearly? Can you make sure that he does not mumble? Are you able to get him to move about while he is acting and make appropriate facial expressions? Vary the tone of his voice? Imagine that he is talking to some particular character? There you are, you can teach drama!

As I say, this was all a deliberate strategy to make sure that my own prejudices did not hamper my child’s future intellectual development. I didn’t care at all for this sort of thing on my own account. It was so successful that she very nearly applied to study English at university, rather than the Philosophy, Politics and Economics that she finally decided upon. She still has an absolute fascination with Tudor theatre and Shakespeare. This is purely a result of my decision to make sure that one gap in my own mental life would not be transmitted to the child for whose education I was solely responsible.

In the next few days, I shall examine one or two other things of this nature, such as the teaching of music; something about which I knew even less than I did drama!

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The illusion of choice


Before I return to some personal accounts of home education, I feel that I must expand upon the idea that I set out yesterday; that unless heroic efforts are made, children are indoctrinated  by their family life from birth in various ideas which will force them in certain directions, thus robbing them of a free choice in how they develop and which interests they pursue. Here is an extract from the blog of a very well known home educator who is vehement in advocating the right of children to choose their own topics for home education:

‘Pottery again today, it is my weekly therapy and we both love it’


The mother goes on in detail about the wonders of creative artwork. The word ‘we’ constantly recurs. One seeks in vain for similar enthusiasm for physics or mathematics! Already, at the age of twelve, this child has been guided into ‘creative’ rather than scientific channels. The mother is determined that the child will not take GCSEs, which means that if she goes to college it will probably be a course which can be accessed by a portfolio; almost certainly  not an A level course. I would put money on its being something in the art line. How much choice has this young person really had?

Or consider the case of a child raised in a very devout Muslim home or one belonging to some protestant, fundamentalist Christian sects. If you have been taught that the world was created only six thousand years ago, you are unlikely to end up studying biology or astronomy at university. After all, you will probably not accept evolution or standard cosmology. Here again, the family belief system is imposing a curriculum which precludes various lines of study.

Of course one does not need to look at devoutly religious families to find ideology being imposed upon children which will push them in a particular direction! Here is a presumably modern, enlightened and progressive parent speaking here yesterday of the way in which she raised a home educated child:

‘'I'm not sure why I'd want my child to develop vastly different life values to the rest of their family. I wouldn't want them to be racist, being rather an obvious example.'



‘We started out with anti-racist beliefs’

This is a pretty general type of dogma which is so common that we may not even recognise it as being a prejudice in which we are indoctrinating our children. Assuming that this parent was using the expression ‘racism’ in the usual meaning, that of believing that different races have different innate qualities and characteristics, some of which make them superior or inferior to those of other races; then why on earth was she conveying opposition  to this belief system to her child as being axiomatic? Why was it her default setting? True, she says that she discussed the question, but clearly from a particular and slanted perspective.

I am myself open minded about the idea of racism and have always promoted this to my daughter. The evidence is far from conclusive and is actually pretty finely balanced on either side. Let us look at just  one example which militates against the holding of ‘anti-racist beliefs’. ( How this can be a matter of ‘belief’, rather than evidence is, I confess, quite beyond me. The very expression, 'anti-racist beliefs'   tells us at once that to the writer,  this is  a matter of ideology or faith and not objective science.)

It is a matter of common observation, in this country, America, Africa, China and everywhere else that data are collected, that black babies reach their motor milestones earlier than white babies. Babies of Chinese origin, by comparison, lag behind both black and white children. Any Health Visitor in this country will know about this and it has been the subject of many studies. Black babies crawl earlier, stand earlier and walk earlier. This is regardless of where they are born and no convincing cultural explanation has been offered for this advantage. They just seem to be stronger and quicker to develop. The physical superiority of black neonates has also shown up in premature babies. Black babies born prematurely have higher survival rates than white babies. It has been suggested that this early advantage in physical development goes some way to towards explaining why there are so many black athletes and footballers.

Now here is evidence which strongly supports a central tenet of racism; a racial group with apparently innate characteristics and traits which give it a superiority over others from different races. To make opposition to such evidence a matter of ideological belief and not science means that many parents who view themselves as being liberal and progressive are in fact in the grip of dogma just as much as the family who believe in the existence of Adam and Eve! The child of such a family who notices that while there are an awful lot of Asian doctors and dentists, it is vanishingly rare to encounter one of Caribbean origin, will be fobbed off with an explanation founded upon ‘anti-racist beliefs’; perhaps that the disparity is due to white racism or is the legacy of colonialism.

We all have irrational family belief systems. Our children are raised in this context and often we are not even aware that we are handing down our own prejudices to them. The only way to counter this is to devise a broad and balanced curriculum which is designed to replace our own prejudices with the best modern thinking about anything that we believe or have faith in. Without an objective education, there is little chance for children to become individuals. In the average family, to pretend that we are allowing children a free choice is a complete nonsense. We are in fact playing a version of the three card trick with them; forcing their choice in line with our own unconscious bigotry and preconceptions.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Hidden Curricula


For many home educators, the word ‘curriculum’ has a faintly disreputable air. The idea is that some families use a curriculum, while others do not. For those who believe that they are rejecting a curriculum for their children’s education, curricula are represented as being a little like straitjackets which limit and restrict education to a pre-determined course. Schools have a curriculum, but enlightened home educators work in a more open and organic way, allowing children to follow and explore their own interests. This is so utterly absurd, that one wonders how any grown person could express such nonsense while keeping a straight face!

All families are possessed of mythoi. These can be as elaborate as the Arthurian legends or so simple that they may be summed up in one or two words. What sort of mythos might an ordinary family have, whether schooling or home educating? A typical one might be, ‘We are musical’. The parents are keen on music, listen to it a lot and perhaps play instruments and go to concerts. Children raised in such a family often learn to play the piano. Although it is seldom stated explicitly, music is assumed to be a good thing, which is a big part of life. Other families might be ‘rational’ or ‘spiritual’. Perhaps they are the ‘scientific’ type, or maybe ‘plain, straightforward folk’. Because these sets of myths pervade the family, they are often unnoticed by the individual members. Children raised in a ‘rational and scientific’ family are being instructed and indoctrinated in a belief system and set of myths just as thoroughly as the child brought up in a strictly observant Muslim or Jewish household. The same goes for the child brought up by those who value creativity, homosexuality, socialism or a host of other ideologies, prejudices and beliefs. There is no such thing as a neutral upbringing. We all of us shape our children from birth in various ways and point them in the directions we wish them to go.

Even when an effort is made not to pass on their own beliefs, the very life that their parents lead, tells their children what is valued, what regarded as good and acceptable. This can be done in simple ways by being scrupulous about recycling, by running a vegetarian kitchen, attending church or tutting disapprovingly when racism is mentioned on the television news.

This then is the hidden curriculum to which every child in the country is taught, whether she attends school or is educated at home. The family’s own mythos permeates every aspect of the developing child’s life and without anybody being aware of the fact, pushes and pulls her in some directions, while propagating powerful taboos which prevent her from exploring other possible identities which she might wish to assume. The great misconception under which many parents labour is that they are able to provide a neutral background for their child, one in which the child is free to be herself and develop according to her own inner dynamic. This is a falsehood. We can certainly tinker with the prejudices to which the child is exposed and attempt to conceal our own likes and dislikes, but unless this is done very skilfully, the child will spot the pretence and the parents will be revealed as liars and hypocrites.

Of course, there are those happy parents whose belief system and values are so perfect and enlightened, that none of this matters. They are pleased and satisfied with the subliminal messages that they are sending to their children and have an idea that nothing could be more liberal and reasonable than the ideas which their own children are acquiring as a consequence of their upbringing. For the rest of us, it is a problem. We realise that we are teaching our children according to a curriculum every bit as detailed and inflexible as the National Curriculum. How we can work against this will be the subject of my next post, which will look at the vital need to produce a broad and balanced curriculum for children and to apply it methodically in every part of our children’s lives.

While we are on the subject of mythoi, I should perhaps mention that every child in a family also acquires her own personal mythology and that this can be every bit as damaging as the overall family mythos. Mary is a ‘loving child’, Joshua is ‘practical’, Emily is ‘brainy’, James is ‘creative’ and so on. Even when not explicitly stated in the child’s presence, these individual mythic characters affect how children are treated, the experiences which their parents arrange for them, the hopes and aspirations which others have for them.

No parent is free of all the things which I have described above. There are really only two choices. We can pretend that this is not happening and act as though there is no hidden curriculum for our children or we can acknowledge that this is the reality and work to devise a curriculum which is specifically aimed at countering our own influences. A curriculum which will be balanced and ensure that our children have an opportunity to take directions which we would never have dreamed of and which might run counter to our own values and way of life. It is at this, the need for a detailed curriculum at which I shall next be looking.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

More about the teaching of higher mathematics



I managed to irritate one or two people here yesterday; not for the first and almost certainly not for the last time. I wonder if those commenting really thought that I was advocating the securing to stakes and pelting with filth of those who failed effectively to motivate their children in the study of mathematics?  If so, it is time now to reveal that this was meant humorously!

In the coming week I want to look at home education in the secondary years, with particular reference to subjects which parents themselves found hard or disliked at school. All too often, we as parents transmit these prejudices and neuroses to our children, so that you will have families with a tradition of art and music, while others tend towards science. This certainly happens in schooling families and I strongly suspect that it is even more common in home educating families.

Today though, I want briefly to mention one or two personal things about my own daughter’s education and the peculiar man who supervised it. By the age of sixteen she had passed eight International GCSEs, all at A*. These were English language, English literature, mathematics, history, physics, biology, chemistry and religious studies. She had also gained Grade 6 (bronze medal) at acting with LAMDA, as well as  Grade 5 classical guitar and Grade 2 piano with the ABRSM. She had no lessons or tutoring in any of those subjects, except by me.

Now I wonder if readers think that all this was because I am some sort of Renaissance Man or Victorian polymath? Do they perhaps think that I am a musician in the morning, who acts at weekends and has a passionate interest in science and mathematics? Not a bit of it. I literally cannot play a single note on the guitar, nor have I ever acted, even at school. As for mathematics, I know hardly anything about the subject and was a complete failure at school. It was my worst subject. Readers are now perhaps scratching their heads, saying to themselves, ’Hang on a minute, wasn’t he talking about the joys of higher mathematics yesterday and rabbiting on about calculus? Somethings’s not right here!’

I shall be expanding upon this idea in the next week or so, but for now I will say that all I know about calculus is that it is concerned with changing motion and figuring out the area under curves. That is it; the sum total of my knowledge. My daughter needed calculus for her maths IGCSE and did it so well that she went on to get an A* in the subject at A level. How can this be, if I was such a duffer at maths and disliked the subject? What about physics? Surely I must be a specialist at that? Nothing of the sort.

This is only a short post, but I want to leave you with this thought. If I did not think that I could have provided my daughter with an education at least as rich and varied, as well as academically sound, as that which she would have received at the best of schools; I should never have embarked upon the enterprise in the first place. True, I had other motives, but this would have been an irreducible minimum, whatever other reasons I might have had for wanting to home educate.

Educating children at home has nothing to do with knowing about subjects. Nor does it, or perhaps I should say that it should not, have any connection with which things one enjoyed at school or found difficult there. Anybody can teach their child literally anything at all; from calculus to piano, from acting to chemistry. It requires no  prior knowledge and will not produce misery in any child. Before I finish, I must leave readers with a simple question. I have a reputation as being a highly structured, school-at-home type of home educator; one who taught, rather than allowed his child to learn naturally. Here is the question. Does anybody believe for a moment that it would be possible to get a child to work hard enough at the guitar to pass grade 5, unless the child was a willing partner in the process? Can anybody imagine forcing, against her wishes, a child of twelve to study calculus? Or biology, acting or anything else? If they can visualise such a neurotic and driven child, forced on by an unforgiving and fanatically pushy parent to over-achieve in all areas, simply to obey his wishes; well then, all I can say is that such people must have a vastly more vivid imagination that my own! It is quite literally impossible to get a two year-old to eat a carrot. How less likely is it that one would be able to persuade, against her will, an adolescent to study mathematics. As I say, I shall be looking at secondary education in the next few weeks and exploring this whole idea in more detail.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Home educating the bleak, joyless and utilitarian way



I have noticed that many home educators, as well as those who write books about home education and set up as experts on the subject, view education in a strictly utilitarian fashion; that is to say in terms of what a child will need in day to day life. Mathematics should be about weighing the ingredients for a cake or calculating the change when shopping, history should be about their family tree, geography; the streets around the child’s home. It puts one in mind of the Victorian industrial schools, whose only aim was to provide children with a rudimentary education, sufficient to fit them out for their station in life, which was usually a pretty lowly one.

On one of the larger home education lists, discussion has been taking place which sums up this awful attitude, a frame of mind practically guaranteed to stunt a child’s intellectual development. The subject is ‘higher maths’, by which those contributing to the debate evidently mean anything at all above the most common arithmetic. Here is one of the more influential figures in British home education, expressing his views on the subject:



As to higher maths, yes a handful of people do need this stuff but do we
really need to make so many kids lives a misery forcing them to learn so
much stuff that they have neither the interest or aptitude and which even if
the schools do manage to drill it into them they will instantly forget?






simple geometry, even the stats I've needed for research is easily covered
by the more basic stuff done at GCSE. I've never quite followed why kids are supposed to need the rest of it.





Notice that key word, ‘need’. Why would you teach a child about the wonders of mathematics, the beauty of sonnets and so on unless the kid actually ‘needed’ it. As I say, a utilitarian approach to education which would have delighted Mr Gradgrind from Hard Times! Others go on to speculate that it is all a dodge by the schools, either to ‘stratify’ the children or to keep them occupied at school. The idea that any mathematics beyond basic arithmetic could be exciting for a child is absolutely impossible for these people to appreciate. This means that their children will probably never learn about the Fibonacci Sequence, which shows the arrangement of leaves on a plant stem, the generations of breeding rabbits and many other features of the natural world. They will never wonder at the idea of imaginary numbers; i, the square root of -1. Nor presumably will they be introducing their children to the marvellous realm of calculus. None of this is ’needed’ and so may be dispensed with. They make them learn this boring stuff at school, why should we do it at home?

It is not, as regular readers will know, my habit to be rude about other people, especially home educators, but these people really deserve to be tied to stakes and pelted with stinking offal and old vegetables. Their idiocy is not only blighting their own lives, but also harming those of their children.

Let me tell a couple of anecdotes about my daughter’s education and how mathematics formed an important part of it. When I taught her to calculate the area of a square by multiplying the sides, she asked me how you could work out the area of a circle, since it didn’t have any sides. There were two ways to proceed. If I had adopted the view of those who want the teaching of mathematics to stop at the simple level and to avoid higher mathematics, then I could have given her the formula for the area of a circle and left it at that. Why on earth would I have done that? It would have been meaningless and dry. Instead, I got her to draw a large circle on a sheet of paper and then cut it out. I then told her to cut the circle into long, narrow strips. Kids of eight always like things like this which involve using their mother’s razor sharp kitchen scissors, which were normally a forbidden item.

We then took the narrow strips of the circle, cut them all in half and arranged them in a rectangle. Then we measured the sides of it and multiplied them, to give the area of the original circle. This intrigued her and led to a long discussion in which she correctly suggested that the narrower the strips had been, the more accurate would be the area that we worked out in this way. Oh, look! An eight year-old child has, with a little guidance, come up with the idea of calculus! Other experiments consisted of measuring the volume of a curved vase by filling it with marbles and then  filling it with sand. Obviously, if you used infinitely small grains, you could produce an accurate measurement of the volume. All these enjoyable activities laid the grounds for her later learning of calculus. Of course, she didn’t ’need’ to know about calculus at eight, but the experiments had started her interest. I bought her the relevant Murderous Maths book and she soon knew more about the matter than I did myself. At twelve, I bought her a book on calculus and she taught herself the whole thing.

Here is another example. When I explained to her about right angle triangles, she found the topic boring. What possible use was all this stuff? We made a gadget out of a ruler and protractor which enabled us to measure angles of inclination. I then offered to help her measure the height of a tall tree near our home. She was incredulous. We simply measured the length of the shadow by pacing, found the angle from the end of the shadow to the top of the tree, used Pythagoras and Bob’s your uncle. Of course, She has never ’needed’ to do this, but it certainly gave her an insight into mathematics and was also a lot of fun.

There is no doubt that it is possible to make any subject boring for children, whether it is higher mathematics or history. What many home educators seem to say is something along the lines of, ’I was bored at school by this subject and so I shall avoid doing it with my child.’ They might instead say, ’I was bored by this subject at school and so I shall work out new and exciting ways to make it interesting and enjoyable for my own child.’

Friday, 20 July 2012

Folies a Deux in some high profile home educating families


I have in the past been reproved for suggesting that many home educators are a bit strange. People commenting here on the notion have reminded me that home educators on the internet may not be at all typical. That there are strange home educating parents is indisputable; every time I shave in the morning, I see one peering out at me madly from the mirror. Could it be though  that I am arguing from the particular to the universal or even projecting my own manifest abnormalities upon others? It would be a rash person indeed who discounted this hypothesis out of hand!

I want to look today at some of the high profile parents who have a great influence on how home education is viewed. They are the ones who appear in newspapers, mount campaigns against local authorities and central government, make hundreds of Freedom of Information requests and patrol the internet looking for heretics.

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I am not saying that all, most or even many home educators are as peculiar as those whom I wish to examine. What I am claiming is that the behaviours displayed are unique to the home educating world and that this makes them worth considering.

I have now come across half a dozen well known home educating mothers who have the following in common. They have daughters to whom they are very attached, either because they are only children or because there is a large gap between the daughter and other siblings. They are all youngest children. The mothers all claim to suffer from various syndromes and typically, doctors are unable to find anything wrong with them. They are forced to either go private, insist upon further tests or resort to alternative medicine. Alarmingly, around the start of puberty, their daughters begin to display similar unidentifiable disorders, both physical and mental. The mothers say that the child is a ‘mirror’ or ‘carbon copy’ of themselves.

Here is one mother talking about her efforts to have herself, at the age of fifty nine, diagnosed with ADHD:



Two of my kids have an ADHD diagnosis (after 10 years of trying) and I have just had mine confirmed as primarily innatentive type. I am trying to explore in a less desperate way than I did when seeking diagnosis to see if I can learn little things that can make a big difference.
Getting diagnosed was a traumatic struggle (and that is no exaggeration), the cards are stacked against you if you have ADHD due to the incompetence and tendency to lose things of the NHS. I may blog about in another post if I find I can without endangering my blood pressure, not there yet … We are going around the houses with the NHS at the moment for a diagnosis for my last child, she presents unusually as well but is almost as a carbon copy of me.




As may be seen, the mother is determined that the child will have the same disorder as she herself. A few months later, the daughter is displaying strange physical symptoms:



whenever she ate something with even the tiniest bit sugar in the same thing happened and it was accompanied by stomach pain. Reluctantly, as you can imagine with a 13 year old girl, she gave up sugar. It is very surprising what has sugar in it and there were very few things we could buy, including most sliced meats.
So all was fine for a few months then she started reacting to all food…



A thirteen year-old girl whose mother is keen for her to have ADHD is now reacting badly to eating any food. She has, ‘hollow eyes and pale complexion and lack of energy’ Can anybody see a connection here? The mother’s remedy is a crank diet and alternative medicine.

Three other mothers of thirteen year old-girls have variations of ME and their daughters develop the problem at puberty. In every case, this involves endless rounds of visits to doctors, often combined with strange diets as the parents self diagnose food allergies, gluten intolerance and so on. This is usually after GPs have told them that there is nothing wrong with the child. Four of these mothers also believe, without any diagnosis that their children are on the autistic spectrum.

I am, as I say, not claiming that this sort of thing is very common. What I am saying is that some of the well known names in British home education are martyrs to this syndrome and it affects their outlook tremendously. Some of these mothers give interviews, appear in newspapers and represent their own views as being typical of home educators in this country. What I will say about this sort of business is this. I have never heard of a woman approaching sixty who is determined to have herself diagnosed with ADHD. This is completely weird. It is curious that at puberty, the  daughters of this group should develop problems with eating, auto-immune disorders, ME, ADHD and so on and that their parent should also be victims of these things. These are extreme cases, but one cannot help notice that while the parents of schooled children tend to shy away from diagnoses of things like ADHD or autistic spectrum disorder in their children, quite a few home educating parents are dead keen on the idea. One often hears home educating parents not only speculating that their children are on the spectrum or have ADHD, but wondering whether they themselves had these things as children.

I would be interested to know if readers have spotted this kind of thing happening. I am particularly keen to know if anybody has seen it in parents who are not home educating? I never have and at the moment I incline to the view that it is something which is exclusive to home educators. Not as I say all or even most, but it definitely looks to me like a well defined subset within the home educating community.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Home education in the primary years

A couple of days ago I posted a bit about my daughter’s early years education and revealed that we never had any sort of timetable. Time now to make an even more shocking confession; during the years of her primary education, we had no curriculum either!


I have in the past been a little puzzled as to why I would need, with a child under the age of eleven, any sort of formal document or plan for her education. I worked instead according to the principle of a wholly individualised education. I observed the things the child said, identified gaps in her knowledge or faults in her thinking and then worked to rectify them.

In practice, this meant that some chance remark of my daughter might show a horrible ignorance about some aspect of the world about which any reasonable person should be well informed. When she was nine, I realised in this way that she had not the least idea where electricity came from or how it was generated.

The following week, I took her to visit the windmill in Wimbledon, south London. We looked at the machinery and thought about the idea of rotary power. This also tied in with a question she had asked about how people made things before there were proper factories. In other words, it connected with her interest in history. Over the next few weeks, as we explored the generation of electricity, we also visited a farm to see wheat growing, acquired some wheat, visited the British Museum to see how flour was ground between two large stones in prehistoric times, before there were windmills and also carried out this operation for ourselves. This led on to baking our own bread.

Back to electricity, we visited a power station in Edmonton, north London, which produced electricity by burning rubbish. Here, the child could see the fires, the turbines and the spinning generators. Later that week, we built a generator of our own and saw how it could light up an LED. We dammed a stream in the forest and then watched how the narrow jet of water we produced could spin a little plastic windmill. This tied in with the visit to the windmill. We were both always glad any way of an excuse to dam a stream. Later on that year, we went on holiday to north Wales and found that there was a hydro-electric power plant near Snowdon that we could visit. A month later, we went to Bradwell Nuclear power station on the Essex coast. This was combined with a day at the seaside.

Two things stand out from all this. The first is that there was nothing even remotely approaching a curriculum. I objected recently to the expression ‘school-at-home’; I am not even sure if I would describe this as ‘structured home education’. It wandered, seemingly at random, all over the place. We moved freely from science to history and then on to home baking, without any sharp division between the subjects. The whole course of the education could veer off at any moment into any unexpected direction.

The second thing that strikes me is that I cannot imagine any home educator not saying to her child, ‘Would you like to visit a windmill today?’ It seems to me to be such a natural thing to do, regardless of whether or not your child has specifically asked to learn about the generation of power. Surely, days out like that are part of all home education?

In this way, my daughter picked up a great deal of the knowledge which would be useful to her in later life. My wife tolerated these experiments quite stoically, although it meant that the house and garden were regularly trashed. She told me later that she grew seriously anxious when I was explaining to the child about nuclear power, as she was worried that I would get hold of some uranium from somewhere and build a nuclear reactor in the kitchen. None of these activities with my daughter followed any sort of curriculum, nor had as their aim an examination or anything of that sort. Of course, the knowledge which she acquired was useful when she took IGCSEs a few years later, but that was not the object of the exercise. An adult who does not know how a nuclear reactor works has no right to express an opinion on nuclear power. Unless you visit a windmill and a power station burning fossil fuels, you are unlikely fully to understand the debate about wind farms, and how wise a move it is to build them. The whole aim of my efforts before the child was twelve was to enable her to understand the world around her and make sense of the things which she saw in the newspaper. I cannot tell you how much fun we had and why anybody would think that you would need timetables and curricula to enjoy yourselves in that fashion is a bit of a mystery!

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

A man of influence


For several years, the idea floated around some sections of the British home educating community that I was a man of great and malign influence; that I had the ear of Graham Badman, was able to muscle my way into giving evidence to select committees and I don’t know what else. Such rumours were sedulously spread by the likes of Maire Stafford and Mike Fortune-Wood. Somebody commented here to this effect only a few days ago. Alas, it is not true, but today I want to look at a man who really does have such influence, somebody able to send civil servants at the Department for Education scuttling off to do his bidding. He is a modest man, too modest and retiring perhaps, and I feel that his role in manipulating things behind the scenes has not been sufficiently celebrated. Step forward our very own Mike Fortune-Wood. What? You laugh? You doubt my word? Mike Fortune-Wood, the scourge of the educational establishment, playing kiss-in-the-ring with the Department for Education? Let us see.

When the ‘new guidelines’ for home education were being drawn up in 2010 and 2011, nobody would admit to being involved. One story was that they were a solo production of Alison Sauer’s; no more than a money making dodge by her. Mike Fortune-Wood in particular, denied flatly that he had anything at all to do with them. He said this several times on the HE-UK list. In fact of course, as he has recently admitted, he was  up to his ears in the business. He and a group of other well known home educators, both here and abroad, were busily engaged in trying to frame a document which would have had a profound effect on every home educating parent in the country. Mike Fortune-Wood’s reticence was understandable. He wished to run with the fox and hunt with the hounds. If the enterprise was favourably received, he would bashfully step forward and receive the plaudits. In the event, it was roundly condemned by most home educators and so he was able to disown it and pretend he had had no part in it. This is known as ‘plausible deniability’; a way of oiling out of responsibility for one’s actions.

The legend arose that only rough drafts were made and that the document would have been put out to consultation with all home educating parents before it was finalised. This was untrue. Have a look again at what it has been alleged was merely a rough draft:



https://www.box.com/shared/6lk1826muy




Clearly, it is nothing of the sort. Alison Sauer, Mike Fortune-Wood and so on put a good deal of work into this and the fact that it was regarded not as a rough draft but a finished product may readily be seen by looking at the notes in red on pages 69, 70 and 87.  These notes indicate the only sections on which work still needed to be done.

The comments are addressed to Graham Stuart, Chair of the Education Committee, and they are staggering in their implications. On page 69, we read:



This section needs completing by someone in the DfE with more knowledge than I have of the process



So the members of the group producing these guidelines felt confident enough to direct that civil servants should work on this draft and follow their instructions? On page 87, we see that Alison Sauer, Tania Berlow, Kelly Green and Mike Fortune-Wood have run out of energy and hope to pass the final stages on to others; again to civil servants from the Department for Education. We read:



I’m sure you can find someone to do this one Graham!



Someone? A friend of Graham Stuart’s? A member of his family? No, a civil servant of course, you fool!

It is not to be wondered at that Mike Fortune-Wood was not overly keen to have all this come to light. For years he represented himself as the mortal foe of local authorities and government departments dealing with education and now we find him on perfectly amiable terms with them and expecting civil servants to do his research for him! I have been fortunate enough to be forwarded an archive of the work undertaken on the so-called ‘new guidelines’, which show in detail the involvement of all concerned. I may, in the public interest, put this up here in the future. In the meantime, a big round of applause for Mike Fortune-Wood; a true man of influence in the places that really matter, such as the Department for Education.

'School-at-Home'

Yesterday I posted a light-hearted and purely personal account of my daughter’s early childhood. This was in response to several requests from people commenting here, that it would be nice to get away from ideology and talk about my own methods of home education. Almost incredibly, this innocent tale of visiting zoos and going down mines was interpreted by one reader as a coded attack on the idea of autonomous education! Perhaps I should abandon the idea of a chatty and non-confrontational approach here and resume the normal, endless and sterile  debates on ideology? We shall see.


It is often suggested that those not enamoured of autonomous home education are in the habit of misrepresenting this pedagogic technique. Some readers, principally those who have just arrived on planet Earth or who have been in a coma since 2009, might be surprised to learn that I have myself been accused of this! This topic has been pretty well worked to death and so I want today to look at how structured and methodical home education is caricatured and mocked by those unable or unwilling to undertake it.

When it became known that Graham Stuart, Chair of the Education Committee, was involved in drawing up new guidelines in elective home education, there was great unease among many home educating parents in this country. So vociferous was the opposition, that the idea was eventually dropped. Still, looking at the guidelines which were produced gives us an insight into the thought processes of many high profile autonomous home educators, both in this country and abroad. The guidelines may be found here:



https://www.box.com/shared/6lk1826muy
                                                                                                                                                                       



Now there was at first an attempt in some quarters to portray this document as being produced solely by Alison Sauer. It gradually came to light that many other well known home educators had also had a hand in it, people like Tania Berlow, Mike Fortune-Wood, Imran Shah and Kelly Green in Canada. That being so, it gives us an insight into the prejudices which afflict quite a few home educators in this country; especially with regard to structured home education.

Let us look at page 64 of this document. We find a section headed School-at-Home. The very fact that this ludicrous expression is used in what it was hoped would become an official  document tells us much about the mentality of some home educators. It is perfectly fair to talk of ‘autonomous educators’ because this is actually an expression used and accepted by them. People call themselves autonomous home educators. I have never in my life and nor I suspect has anybody else, ever heard anybody call themselves ‘school-at-home educators‘. This is because ‘school-at-home’ is a pejorative phrase dreamed up by those who are opposed to the  structured teaching of home educated children. ‘Autonomous home educator’ is a neutral term; ;school-at-home’ is a sneering and disapproving expression coined by those who think that this is the best way to describe structured home education. That this is so can easily be tested. Google around a bit and you will soon find people who are happy to call themselves ‘autonomous’ or ‘autonomous educators’. Now try and find anybody who calls themselves ‘a school-at-home type” or claims to do ‘school-at-home’. You will find nobody, because this is not a real description of any kind of home education. It is always used by those opposed to an type of home education which they do not themselves practice.

We are told, also on page 64,  that these ‘school-at-home’ parents use a curriculum to cater for the whole of their children’s education. This is a ridiculous idea. I would be very keen to hear of such a parent. No home educating parent relies on a curriculum to cater for the whole of a child’s education; the very idea is a nonsense. Perhaps readers could tell us of any such parent? As God he knows, I was a fanatically structured home educator who worked his child hard, but the curriculum occupied only 10% or 20% of my daughter’s education. As the post yesterday showed, most of her education was not via any curriculum but was derived from real-life experiences. The same is true of all other structured home educators whom I have known.

What about the idea that, ‘Families maintain a clear distinction between education and leisure, and often keep the school rhythm of terms and holidays’. Who does this? Has anybody ever known a home educating parent who says to her child, ‘Oh, we won’t be learning anything next week, Jimmy; the schools have a half-term holiday.’ Completely grotesque. Of course many home educating families whose children have friends at school might make opportunities for their children to meet up with those on holiday from school, but this has nothing to do with a particular type of home education.

I find it fascinating to see how the term ‘school-at-home’ has become used by those who do not in general favour the regular and systematic teaching of children. It sounds like a neutral description, but is in fact designed to display contempt for other home educators. I think that autonomous home educators using the phrase would do well to think twice before accusing others of misrepresenting a type of home education.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Back to the subject of home education...

Somebody asked yesterday if I could give some account of the methods which I used in my daughter’s education. Since this brings us neatly back to the topic of home education, I think that this is no bad idea; although I have in the past tended to steer clear of discussing in details my educational techniques.


I have mentioned that I taught my daughter to read at a very early age, but there was more important stuff going on than that. The most crucial aspect of her early years was the programme of enrichment which I devised for her and put into operation. Essentially, this entailed making sure that she had as many interesting experiences as could possibly be fitted into her waking hours. I will focus today upon what, had she been educated by others, would have been the pre-school years, possibly looking in detail in later posts at her primary and secondary years.

The best way of explaining what was being done to increase my daughter’s intellectual ability is too give a few random examples. A full account would weary even the most dedicated home educator to read! I wanted the child by the age of five to be familiar with different types of transport; boats for instance. Of course, I arranged for her to travel in rowing boats, punts and canoes, but this was not really sufficiently stimulating. I made sure that she also boarded a submarine, visited a fishing trawler, explored a warship, clambered about in a lifeboat and travelled down the Thames in a paddle steamer; seeing in the process  Tower bridge open to allow the boat through. She needed to know something about mines and so I took her down a coal mine, gold mine, lead mine, iron mine and chalk mine. Of course, for a child of that age, this was not education at all from her point of view; merely a series of glorious adventures.

The animal kingdom was a particularly rich field of endeavour, chiefly concerned with finding ways to baffle the safety precautions which prevent small children from getting close to large and dangerous animals. At London Zoo, they used to have elephants and rhinoceroses. When my daughter was very small, it was possible to dangle her over the side of the enclosure so that she could actually touch the rhinoceros and fondle its horn. The same method enabled her to reach out and touch the elephant’s trunk. At Paradise Park wildlife park in Hertfordshire, a fully grown tiger was laying by the bars of its enclosure. There was a safety barrier, but I never took much notice of such things. I climbed over with my four year-old daughter and allowed her to put her hand through the bars and stroke the tiger. Mercifully, it did not whirl round and tear her arm off. By the age of five, she had stroked, held or fed from her hand the following animals; elephant, giraffe, rhinoceros, camel, zebra, tiger, wolf, lynx, jungle cat, yak, fox, armadillo, crocodile, penguin and many others.

The human brain is extraordinarily plastic in the early years and instead of learning about the world only through the medium of her eyes, as is often the case with children who depend upon television, books and computers; she was able to immerse her senses in those things about which I wished her to learn. Not only seeing a picture or film of a tiger, but actually smelling it and burying her hands in its fur as though she were stroking the neighbour’s cat. There was of course the odd mishap; most notably when a tapir swallowed her arm, but nothing which caused lasting harm.

Now of course most parents take their children to the zoo from time to time, but when my daughter was small, this was her entire life. Not only zoos, but castles, museums, aquaria, farms, army bases; anywhere at all in fact which I felt she might benefit from seeing, hearing, smelling touching and generally experiencing. Of course, the academic work continued alongside this enrichment. In a typical day at the age of three she would be reading half a dozen simple books, being taught to write, learning Chinese, doing simple algebra, visiting a museum and finishing the day at a farm where she would have a riding lesson.

I might mention here that I found all this enormously enjoyable myself and although it was not made explicit, she probably realised even at the age of two or three that the exciting activities were contingent upon her working academically as well.

This is only the briefest account and I have given this only because I was specifically asked to do so by somebody who commented here. I might in the future give accounts of other stages in her development. The results seemed to be satisfactory for both of us, to the extent that we enjoyed each other’s company and she eventually went on to get a place at Oxford. I think that the conversational learning which took place alongside all these various activities deserves a post of its own at some point. Really though, that is enough about my own child, at least for now.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

A final word about Maire Stafford…


I dare say that readers are now growing heartily sick of this subject and I promise that this is the last time that I shall be posting about it; unless that is, I am actually arrested! Normal service will be resumed from tomorrow and there will only be posts about home education.

As I have explained, Maire Stafford is, with Mike Fortune-Wood’s help, trying to find people who will claim that I have harassed them here. She is also claiming that she herself was harassed by things that I have said about her on this blog. I want to point out two things that will be considered if Maire Stafford tries to put herself forward as a victim of harassment or is instrumental in instigating somebody else to make such a complaint.  The first is that a government department has already decided that she has been guilty herself of harassment and causing distress in connection with home education. See;



http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/21994/response/55614/attach/2/Document.pdf



This cannot but tend to weaken any case of harassment in which she plays a prominent part. The second point is that, as this letter makes clear, she has a history of encouraging people to make complaints and take legal action. I have dozens of posts and emails in which she does precisely this; urges people to make allegations against others.

What all this amounts to is that if Maire Stafford comes across people whose views on home education are different from her own she has a history of harassing them and also encouraging other people to harass them by making complaints and accusations against them. It is in this context that her latest campaign against me must be seen, because of course it contains just these elements.

And with that, I leave the topic of Maire Stafford and her unfortunate dupes and return to home education!

Friday, 13 July 2012

A do-it-yourself guide to online harassment: Part 2

Maire Stafford is currently posing as the selfless defender of a woman who has allegedly been harassed by me on this blog. This dupe has been persuaded by Maire Stafford that I am, as she puts it, in the habit of, ’making very unpleasant accusations’ about people’s children. This at least was what she told me in an email. Maire Stafford has told her that she herself has been upset by what I have had to say about her on this blog. She is being less than candid; Maire Stafford actually began a vindictive campaign of harassment against me before I even started this blog. Come with me now, as the years roll back and we revisit 2009.


Up until the end of July 2009, I had been a member of several HE lists for years. I had encountered Maire Stafford, but not really taken any notice of her. On July 30th, a piece of mine was published in the Independent. That same day, Maire Stafford tweeted this:

http://twitter.com/Maire52/status/2927163148



Simon Webb is Judas! Strong stuff indeed from somebody I did not know and had barely exchanged a dozen words with on an internet list. From then on, Maire Stafford saw it as her personal mission to attack me. How did she do this? One way was to get people to post comments on the online versions of my article and also to encourage the spreading of untruthful rumours about me. Some fool posted this on the HE-UK list on July 30th;

There is a Simon Webb mentioned here as an Area Education Officer.... under
Badman! Listed is the
CFHE Directorate Structure Chart which is readily available on the
internet.... .


http://docs. google.com/ gview?a=v

m/request/7844/ response/ 21038/attach/ 2/cfe-structure- chart1106. pdf+Simon+ Web
b+badman&hl= en>
&q=cache:W9Udfm7eA8 AJ:www.whatdothe yknow.com/ request/7844/ response/ 21038/att
ach/2/cfe-structure -chart1106. pdf+Simon+ Webb+badman& hl=en




This was an attempt to prove that I was a former colleague of Graham Badman. Maire’s response was to post;



Brilliant research R.


Maire

She then touted this idea around and tried to get others to take it up and use it. Mike Fortune-Wood was quick to join in and posted a comment on the Independent site, claiming that I had lied to gain access to the HE-UK list and that I was a colleague of Graham Badman’s. Of course, he didn’t want to use his own name, these people are too cowardly for that, and so posted as Maesk123.

Meanwhile, Maire Stafford was doing her best to get people on various lists to criticise me on newspaper sites. Still on July 30th, she posted:


Couple of less supportive comments on there now, even a nothing to fear
nothing to hide one! Anyone got the energy to slam em.




‘Slam em’; this hardly ties in with her description of herself on her twitter account as shy and sweet! Her aim was to present me in as bad as light as possible. That same day, she posted again on the HE-UK site, saying of me:

Perhaps he has one of those illnesses, you know like people who confess to
murders they haven't done in order to get attention.




The next day, July 31st, somebody posted something unpleasant about me on the HE-UK list and Maire Stafford said:



This would look very good in the comments section under the article.


Maire




Here she is again on both HE-UK and EO, a day later:



What about lots of comments that support Jeremy but ignore Simon.


And don't forget to vote in the poll.


Maire




Now I do want to emphasise that this was all at a time before this blog even existed. I am not going to put all the things down here; there are simply too many. She was posting comments all over the place, telling lies such as that I was a local authority officer, that I was not really a home educating parent and, most ludicrous at all, that I was actually a home education inspector. She was tweeting these falsehoods, emailing them to people, commenting on newspaper sites, lists and forums. This was not limited to passing on rumours from others; she would make up her own.

This might not sound too bad, except that these lies soon spread round the world. In September 2010, for instance, a year after Maire Stafford had invented these stories, Kelly Green in Canada said of me on her blog, Kelly Green and Gold:


'He was an advisor to Graham Badman and the Department of Children, Schools and Families over the course of the Badman Review,'


A year later and the story cooked up my Maire Stafford is surfacing on the other side of the earth! Are readers beginning to see why I might have been a bit annoyed about this?

I gave another example of this yesterday. In the autumn of 2009, a rumour was circulating that I had told Graham Badman to ignore Paula Rothermel’s research. I was also alleged to have warned him that many home educating mothers were suffering from Munchausen’s Syndrome. This was so completely barmy that I could make no sense at all of it and wondered where it had started. Eventually, I tracked down the story to it’s earliest appearance. Not surprisingly, this was on the HE-UK list, which had served as a clearing house for these lies. On November 4th, Maire Stafford posted there, saying of me:


And considering it was probably him who told Badman that Paula Rothermel's
work was not sound I think he has an immense amount to answer for. Wouldn't
be surprised if this wasn't the source of the Munchausens fiasco too


I might have guessed; it originated, like so much of the other poison, with Maire Stafford.

Now I will freely admit that I began to get a little ticked off with the woman after all this. I barely knew her and here she as inventing stuff about me and doing her damnedest to make life difficult for me. I had said nothing at all about her at this time and was puzzled as to why she seemed so determined to try and harm my reputation. I certainly made a few sharp comments about her once the blog was running, but this was in an attempt to stop her carrying on in this way. Anybody who wishes to check up on all this can of course still see the messages on the HE-UK site on the dates I have given. That a woman like this, who has behaved in such a way, should now offer to help people who have supposedly been the victims of online harassment is little short of incredible.

I hope that readers will understand if I hold back a good deal of material in reserve, in the event that Maire Stafford really does try to stand up in court and portray herself as an innocent victim of my malice. I have in the past been in contact with people who have been bullied by her and two new people have now come forward to offer me emails and statements. Boy, am I looking forward to a court case! I have already drawn up a provisional list of witness summonses and I think that I can safely assure readers that Maire Stafford will not, by the end of it, be in a very strong position to represent herself as my victim; quite the opposite in fact.



A do-it-yourself guide to online harassment; Part 1


As readers will have seen this morning, I have been reported to the police for harassment. Fortunately, or I suppose unfortunately for those making the complaint, the police want a little more than just my making jokes about spiritualism. When Maire Stafford heard that the police were reluctant to act, and I think I ought to mention at this point that the whole idea of contacting the police in the first place was hers, she got in touch with Mike Fortune-Wood and asked him to help. She did not actually use the expressions stalking-horse, patsy or fall-guy when discussing this, but the gist was that she had managed to get somebody to pose as a victim.  There was now a golden opportunity for the pair of them to get their own back for all the jokes and snarky remarks which I have in the past made about them. There would never, she told him, be another chance like it.  Mike obligingly posted the following  on the HE-UK list, of which he is the owner:



Hi all


First off I don't want this to develop into a discussion topic, I still
regard this topic as restricted.


Those who don't know what this is about probably don't need to and those who
do will understand the context.


If anyone has had their personal details given out on Simon Webb's blog can
they please get in touch with Maire Stafford


mairestafford@XXX.com


This is urgent, if you want to do something about this today is the day.
Maire will explain to you what is being done.


Thank you.


Best wishes


Mike F-W
Your man in a hammock




What is being done is an attempt at making a case for what is known as ‘collective’ harassment. This is when somebody harasses members of some religion, ethnic group, profession and so on. It is a peculiarly ill-judged enterprise for several reasons and is doomed to failure, but we will let that pass for now. The fact is, these two are trying to do it.



Now what they both of course know, but the woman who was encouraged to go to the police does not, is that Maire Stafford and Mike Fortune-Wood worked a neat double act in the summer of 2009, whereby they used emails, blogs, HE lists, twitter and the comments on online newspapers to try and blacken my name. Some of this mud stuck; there are still people who believe that I was a colleague of Graham Badman or that I used to work for a local authority. This is the thing about activities of this sort, it is impossible ever wholly to set the record straight. This post is getting a little long and unwieldy, so I shall break it into two parts. This first part has laid the ground and tomorrow I shall demonstrate clearly, using her own emails, posts and tweets, just why Maire Stafford is the best possible person to consult on the subject of online harassment. She is a master at it and examining her tactics will show readers how this sort of thing may be done effectively. It’s no good just mentioning stuff on a little blog like this from time to time; you have to be proactive! Studying Maire’s methods will show how one home educator can really harass another successfully.




Maire Stafford, Mike Fortune-Wood and Nikki Harper try to have me arrested!


The title of this piece is not one which I could, in my wildest dreams, have ever thought that I would be typing. Never the less, it is actually the case. Having realised that action against me for libel would be horribly expensive and in any case unlikely to succeed, Nikki Harper has decided to go for the cheaper option of reporting me to the police for supposedly harassing her and her husband on this blog. As readers might know,  Mrs Harper posted a piece on her blog at the beginning of May, naming me and saying some unflattering and untruthful things about me:

http://secondaryathome.wordpress.com/2012/05/06/the-inadequacies-of-mr-anonymous/

Since then, I have made the odd reference to this woman and her husband’s eccentric ways of making a living. Then, a week or so ago, Nikki Harper began coming on here and getting herself worked up into a regular state.

Now of course this is nothing unusual on the internet; spats like that happen all the time. By a stroke of ill fortune for her though, Mrs Harper fell under the influence of that most malevolent of women, Maire Stafford. This is when things took a decidedly surreal turn, as Maire Stafford advised Nikki that she had a duty to beetle off to the police station and report me for saying upsetting things about her such as that she was an astrologer. Mrs Harper duly did so and, it will come as no surprise to readers to learn, she was promptly given the bum’s rush by police officers who have more important things to investigate than this blog; things like murders and rape, for example.

In order to give her the brush-off courteously, they being unwilling to be too brusque with somebody who was obviously distressed and whose mental state was clearly a little fragile, they told her that if I was in the habit of upsetting people in this way, then they would get in touch and have a word with me.

Enter, stage right, Maire Stafford. Readers with long memories will recall that Maire Stafford ran a campaign against me on the HE-UK list a few years ago, after pieces of mine about home education were published in the Independent and Times Educational Supplement. She devised rumours, spread lies, coordinated the online comments on the articles and generally made a thorough nuisance of herself. To give just one example, when Paula Rothermel claimed that Graham Badman had suggested that home educating mothers were suffering from Munchausen’s and also questioned the validity of her research; many parents were annoyed and upset. On November 4th 2009, Maire Stafford posted on the HE-UK list, trying to make people think that this was in some way my fault! She wrote,

And considering it was probably him who told Badman that Paula Rothermel's
work was not sound I think he has an immense amount to answer for. Wouldn't
be surprised if this wasn't the source of the Munchausens fiasco too


She also helped to spread the ridiculous lie that I was a former colleague of Graham Badman’s. Even this was nothing compared to a Tweet of hers in September 2009, to the effect that I was really not a home educating parent at all, but a home education inspector!  I don't suppose for a moment that Maire Stafford believed all this, she just felt that lies like this would make people view me with suspicion. Much of this malicious activity was undertaken on the HE-UK site, with Mike Fortune-Wood’s aid and encouragement. Maire Stafford is a strange woman. The very fact that she describes herself on her blog as being sweet, mild, timid and shy should be enough to alert any objective observer to the probability that she is actually unpleasant and aggressive and so it has proved over the years.

Yesterday, Mike Fortune-Wood appealed for information on his list that might help Maire Stafford to help Nikki Harper to get me prosecuted. The idea is that I have been revealing personal information about people here and attacking them. As a result of what she has been told by Maire Stafford, Nikki Harper is convinced that I  have, 'a reputation for attacking people, making very unpleasant accusations about their children', as she puts it.  I have no idea what these unpleasant accusations are about children, but Maire Stafford and Nikki Harper are currently scouring this blog for them. I will not go into all the things that were said about me on both HE-UK and various other lists and blogs in the past, but I will instead limit myself to remarking that it is a good thing that I was not the sort of chap to feel that he was being harassed online! It is to be hoped that this nonsense will end soon and I shall be able to get back to blogging about home education, which is after all the purpose of this place. I have an idea though that this business has a little way to run yet.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

GCSE related scams for home educators

I have noticed lately that I am apparently turning into one of those unfortunate people that one occasionally encounters in the street; shuffling along and muttering to themselves, while shouting obscenities every so often. In my own case, this behaviour is all too often precipitated by some new idiocy from the world of home education, from which I still seem unable to disengage myself. Perhaps I am suffering from some species of pre-senile dementia. It can’t be normal to read through the various HE lists and start growling, ‘For fuck’s sake!’ to one’s self every few minutes!


What with the Education Committee considering the help available to home educators and Fiona Nicholson beavering away to find out which local authorities are providing help with alternative provision, this strikes me as a good time to consider why so many teachers and local authority officers flee shrieking in terror at the prospect of helping home educating parents to arrange for their children to sit examinations such as GCSEs. This is a big topic and I shall restrict myself today to just one aspect of it.

I was reading an appeal recently by a home educating mother who was trying to secure extra time and rest breaks for her son, so that he could take a GCSE. He would apparently need at least four breaks an hour for there to be any realistic chance of his sitting the examination. She wondered what proof she would need to furnish of her son’s problems. Cue somebody advising her that under the Disability Discrimination Act, she could take a firm line with anybody who doubted her word on the matter. Well why wouldn’t it be enough for a mother simply to explain the facts of the matter to the exam centre and for them just to provide the kid with the extra time or laptop or whatever he needs? The answer is that this whole business has turned into a huge racket in the last few years.

At the local comprehensive, no fewer than 15% of the children sitting GCSEs get extra time and various other things such as scribes or laptops. One child in six! What is truly astonishing is that they are almost without exception the most middle class children with the pushiest and most articulate parents. Rummy indeed! Are middle class children more prone to dyslexia and neurological difficulties? Well, no; it is of course a scam. By getting a report from a tame specialist, which will set you back a few hundred pounds, your child can have two hours to write an essay, rather than just the one hour that all the other children are getting. This is a huge advantage. Nor is this all.

It is also possible to boost your child’s exam marks by pleading a range of special circumstances, ranging from headaches on the day of the exam to being diagnosed with terminal cancer the day before. The one will give you an extra 1%, the other 5%. In between these two extremes are a whole raft of possible life-events; pets falling ill, seeing somebody killed in a road accident, death of a grandmother and so on. By combining a couple of these with dyslexia, you can give your kid a huge advantage in GCSEs.

What is the point of all this though? After all, GCSEs don’t matter all that much, do they? In fact they do matter a great deal if one wishes to get a place at one of the better universities. Oxford and Cambridge expect to see a string of seven or eight A* GCSEs as standard, as do a few other universities in the Russell Group. At less prestigious places, GCSE results are often used as a tiebreaker. If you have a bunch of kids, all with three A levels at A, you can look at their GCSEs; the one with mostly As will often trump the one with mostly Bs.

A natural consequence of all this is that many well informed parents work the system by pretending that their children are dyslectic and have suffered some sort of trauma the day before an exam. This sort of thing is nearly always accepted, but many teachers are getting a bit sick of it. Between them, the exam boards each get over half a million appeals for special consideration every year and only 3% are rejected. With one child in six being given extra time, separate rooms, laptops and so on during GCSEs; it is starting to be plain that this is becoming another tactic by parents to boost their kids’ grades at GCSE from B to A or from A to A*.

I am not of course saying that there is no such thing as dyslexia. Nor am I objecting to children with special educational needs being granted extra help. Rather, I am claiming that middle class parents are using the system to give their children an unfair advantage over the rest and that attempts are now being made to discourage the practice. One of these is to be a bit stricter about which children genuinely have a disability.

I am afraid that home educating parents are famous for wanting special provision for their children. There are a number of possible explanations for this. One is that many home educated children have been withdrawn from school precisely because they had special needs that the school was unable to cater for. Another might be because the parents are predominantly middle class and are therefore using the same scam as many other middle class parents. It may also be the case that they are so used to having their own way and believing their child to be special, that they want different treatment as a matter of course.

Whatever the explanation, and it could well be a mixture of all of the above, it makes fixing up GCSEs for home educators something of a nightmare and is one reason why many places give them a wide berth. In my next piece, I shall look at a few other reasons why so few people seem to want to help home educators to enter their children for exams.

Educating bullied children at home

According to what little research has been conducted in this country about home education, one of the main reasons for deregistering children from school and educating them at home is because they have been bullied at school. The Education Otherwise survey in 2003 found this, as did the study by York Consulting in 2007. It is probably a fair guess that this is still the chief motive for the home education of previously schooled children in Britain.


One of the problems with bullied children is that they all too often go on to become bullied teenagers and then bullied adults as well. You frequently find that a child who was bullied at primary school, even if he is transferred to a secondary school where nobody knows him will be bullied there as well. Just as there is a bullying type of child, so too is there a bullied kind of child. It is a complicated subject, but the Americans have name for this; they call it ’victim precipitation’. It is nothing to the purpose here to consider why some children are prone to being bullied, it is enough to realise that it happens. In such cases, withdrawing the child from school and educating him at home is not always the best course of action; not by a long chalk.

Some of those children who get picked on are socially awkward, others might be on the autistic spectrum. There are also those whose home background might have made them appear a little strange to their classmates. It only takes something slightly different and out of the ordinary to attract the attention of the bullying type. I hope this does not sound like victim-blaming, because it is nothing of the sort. I am rather thinking about how things are in the real world. Unfortunately, colleges and the workplace can mirror the situation in schools. The peculiar work colleague can also come to the attention of those of a bullying disposition and have his or her life made a misery in the workplace.

If a child is  slightly different from others and has as a result been bullied, then withdrawing him from school and causing him to spend all day with an adult is unlikely to help him be more like his peers. Indeed, it is likely to have quite the opposite effect. If after spending years like this, he then goes to college, then the slight differences in the eight year-old might have grown into the frankly odd behaviour of the young man of sixteen. The bullying can then begin anew. I know of a number of cases where this has happened.

I am perfectly well aware that many schools fail lamentably to tackle bullying with sufficient rigour. Obviously, no parent will stand by and see her child being picked on and taking him away from the bullies can often seem the best solution. It may well be a good short term solution, but it is also quite possible that by doing this one is storing up even more trouble for the child in the future. Ideally, the school and other services should help the child; try to find out whether there is a way of preventing him from providing such a tempting target to bullies. This could be done by psychological assessments, counselling and behavioural therapy. Of course the bullies should also be dealt with ruthlessly; they too need help to make them behave like decent human beings and not like cruel young savages.

All parents fight fiercely to protect their children and will do anything at all that they feel necessary to look after their interests. If schools were to do their job properly and deal with bullying by referring both bullies and bullied to the appropriate services, then a lot of home education would no longer be necessary. I cannot think in general that it is healthy for children who are having difficulty surviving in a group of their peers, to be taken out of this social setting to spend all day with their mums. At the very least, it will hardly serve to make them more normal and like other children of their age! Perhaps when the Education Committee considers what support local authorities are providing for home educated children, this is something at which they could look. By putting in enough resources and help earlier on when problems rear their head, it might not be necessary for most of those children to be taken out of school  in the first place.

Incidentally, may I beg anybody commenting on this piece not to use the neologism 'bullicide', nor to repeat claims that sixteen children a year are driven to suicide by bullying? A couple of charities make a good income from bullying and they have a vested interest in the phenomenon; it is what brings in their funding. The 'sixteen suicides a year' gag is part of their mythology and bears no relation to the real situation.

Monday, 9 July 2012

More about language acquistion and the teaching of babies and toddlers to read

We looked a few days ago at language as the manipulation of symbols. Let's return now to the subject of reading. There are basically two ways to teach reading. There is the complicated way and the easy method. The complicated way involves studying a lot of strange words and alien ideas such as morphemes and phonemes, blending and sequencing, synthetic phonics and whole language teaching. No need to panic at this point, because we shall be using the easy, and incidentally far more effective, method. For teaching babies and toddlers, this is the only method to use.


Most traditional techniques for the teaching of reading involve breaking the word down into little pieces and then building it up again. Most of us have some vague idea that the alphabet is the basis of reading and that children must first learn this and try somehow to combine the letters into words. This is the difficult way and it is quite unnecessary. Consider the following sentence;
The little dog ran across the road to his owner

When you read this sentence, did you laboriously sound out the letters and so decode the meaning of the words? When you read "dog", did you say to yourself, "Duh...oh...guh..spells dog"? I am guessing that nobody who read this did anything of the kind! Instead, we glance at the word as a whole and simply see "dog". We don't even need to know the letters of the alphabet in order to read the word, much less sound it out. It wouldn't really have helped you to do that any way with three of the words in that simple sentence. Look at "the" and try and sound it out. Tuh....huh..eh..spells the. Or how about howaboutruh...oh...ah...duh...spells road. Or even oh...wuh...ne..eh..ruh..spells owner.

I'm sure that you are getting the idea. We actually read words as wholes. We don't split them up into little pieces to decipher their meaning. We teach children to do this when they are learning to read so that they will have what teachers call "word attack" skills to decode unfamiliar words which they encounter. It is a good aim, but unfortunately it has the effect of making the whole business seem very hard for many small children. Most importantly of all, it is completely unnecessary.

So if we do not actually break words down into little bits when we read, what do we actually do? It is very simple; we look for familiar shapes. We really read by spotting the shapes of words, based largely upon the ascenders and descenders which they contain. This will be the only technical jargon used in the whole of this course and it really is impossible to avoid discussing ascenders and descenders. What are they? Simply the bits of letters which stick up above the rest of the word, in the case of ascenders or hang down below, on the case of descenders. For instance, in the word

dog


there is an ascender in the letter "d" and a descender in the letter "g". These bits jutting out give words a characteristic shape or pattern. If we look at a few words in the light of this, we will soon see that they most of them have distinctive shapes;

ball, aeroplane, cat, it, and, the, tree



The individual letters which they contain need not concern us and there is certainly no reason at all to tax a small child with untangling these letters and then trying to remember their names, sounds or correct position in the word! How can we be sure that this is what we are doing when we read? Very easily as it happens. If we actually read by looking at the letters and then understanding the words, then the following lines should not be any more difficult to read than the ones which go before. ThE lEtTeRs ArE hErE fOr AlL tO sEe BuT tHE WoRdS tHeMsElVeS aRe NoT aLwAyS iMmEdIaTeLy ApPaReNt. I am pretty sure that even the most fluent readers will have had to slow down in order to make sense of the last sentence. This is purely and simply because the words do not have their usual and characteristic shapes. After all, they contain exactly the same letters as they normally do. Let's look at another example. Here is a passage which specifically leaves out all the letters without ascenders and descenders;



I thxxk thxt xxxt pxxplx xxll bx xblx tx xxxd thxx xlthxxgh x lxt xf lxttxxx xxx xxxxxxg.



Now compare the above sentence, still fairly easy to read because it includes all the ascenders and descenders which give the words their familiar pattern, with this;



xn xxis xassaxe axx xxe xexxers wxicx xux oux axove xxe xine or xexow ix xave xeen xefx oux, maxinx ix mucx xarxer xo reax.



(In this passage all the letters which jut out above the line or below it have been left out, making it much harder to read).



We read in ordinary life by spotting the patterns of the words, primarily with reference to the position of the ascenders and descenders. These mean that words have particular shapes that we take in at a glance. There is of course nothing at all strange about the idea of reading whole words at a glance in this way by picking out their distinctive patterns. At least a fifth of the world' population have done this very thing for thousands of years. Each Chinese symbol or ideogram represents one word. Children learning Chinese simply memorise the signs and away they go. It is perhaps no coincidence that the incidence of dyslexia in countries using this method of reading is astonishingly low. Indeed, some years ago research was conducted with dyslectic teenagers in the USA, which involved teaching them Chinese! To general astonishment, they learnt far more quickly than they had been able to learn to read English. It is the complicated business of putting letters and sounds in their correct sequence which seems to confuse children with dyslexia. Just looking at a whole word and reading it without analysing its internal structure is far easier.

Our brains are divided into two halves or hemispheres they are usually called. Different hemispheres control different aspects of our skills. Language, including reading and writing, is usually handled in the left hemisphere. Pattern recognition, on the other hand is generally dealt with by the right hemisphere. Sometimes, people have what we might describe as wiring faults in that part of the brain which handles language. This can lead to a delay in talking, dyslexia or problems with writing and spelling. Because we are in this course treating words as shapes or patterns, we do not have to worry about any of this. Children who are prone to reading difficulties can get into an awful tangle when they try and use the left half of their brains to work out spellings and so on. Because we are using whole words here, this problem cannot arise.

Something to bear in mind about our brains is that although we often talk about them as being like super-fast and fantastically efficient computers, there is one very significant difference. When we buy a computer, all the wiring is in place. All that we do is add various programmes; the computer remains precisely the same after we install them. This is not at all how it is with the brain. Our skills and actions are of course affected by the brain and its circuits, but this is a two way street. Our actions and thoughts actually change the brain as well. In other words, if we do the same action over and over again, or even think the same thought again and again, this causes a physical change in the structure of the brain. Using our ears and listening to music, actually makes certain parts of the brain richer in circuits than they were before. The same thing happens with talking and reading. This process is far more marked in young children than it is in adults.

Scientists call this ability to change, the "plasticity" of the brain. A baby's brain is growing very rapidly and new connections are being made very hour between different parts. If these connections are not made when the baby is young, they will be far harder to make in later years. Sometimes, if the connections are not made in early childhood, they can never subsequently be made; the brain simply has to do without those connections in later life! That is why it is vital that babies are given the opportunity to form these pathways when they are young. This is particularly so with the parts of the brain which deal with symbols and patterns.

Because we are embarking upon a course of instruction for small children which will depend upon the interpretation of shapes, we must consider how this ability may best be established in the baby's mind and brain. To begin with, we will need to use very simple and large shapes. Many inset boards and puzzles are available through commercial outlets, but often they tend to be fiddly and confusing for very small babies. What is needed to begin with are simple, clear and brightly coloured geometric shapes; a triangle, square and circle to begin with. Next week I shall be providing some examples of this sort of thing which can be printed off. The main thing is in the early stages to keep the whole thing very simple and to make sure that the child is capable of recognising, say, a square or triangle before moving on to more complicated patterns. Hand in hand with this work must go the baby's development of symbolic understanding. This is best achieved by play. Play which is intended to stimulate certain aspects of a child's development and understanding is best directed and planned by an adult.

There is a very strong link between symbolic or representational play and language development in general. In children with autism, which is really an extreme for of language problem, ordinary play of this sort is unknown. An autistic child might chew a toy car or spin the wheels repetitively, but he will not push it along the floor pretending that it is a real car. He simply cannot see that it is a symbol. This lack of symbolic understanding in play also shows in language development.

Obviously, when we are trying to get a baby to understand and interpret symbols we will not be starting with a two dimensional set of black squiggles saying "elephant". To begin with, we want the symbol to resemble as closely as possible the thing that it stands for. So at first, we might have perhaps a doll. Even very young babies can pick out faces from among other objects on show. It will not take a great mental leap for your six month old baby to realise that the large doll is similar in many ways to a human being. We can encourage this identification of the doll as representing a person by brushing its hair, talking about the doll having a bath and so on. This is the beginning of a very important process for the baby; the realisation that some things can stand for other things. A doll can represent a person, a toy telephone can stand for the real thing, a model car can be thought of by the child as being in some sense a proxy for the family car. In the next module, I shall be giving a detailed set of activities that may be undertaken to this end.

Structured play of the sort described above will have many incidental benefits, quite apart from laying the ground for learning to read. For one thing, the emphasis on representational play with dolls and so on, will boost a baby's language ability in itself. The increasing use of symbols in this way will prime the child's mind for the general use of symbols, not only in play but also in the use of expressive language - talking. This language development will also be enhanced by the conversation which takes place between parent and child during play. This brings us neatly to another aspect of language development and reading; the use of televisions and computers.

Children learn to talk from adults. Other children are neither good role models for speech, nor are they good teachers. They do not moderate their own language or tone of voice in the way that parents do automatically. Even worse from the point of view of language acquisition is television. Despite the huge number of special DVDs available for young children, there is not a shred of evidence that any of them have any sort of beneficial upon a child's development. they are baby sitters and not very good ones at that. The same goes for computer programmes which promise to boost a child's intelligence. There is simply no substitute for the undivided attention of one adult who is devoted to the growing child's welfare and education. In practice, this means a parent and almost invariably a mother.

Not only are television and computers useless for the education of small children, there is a good deal of evidence that they may be positively harmful. The rapid changes of scene, bright colours, cheerful music and flickering light becomes addictive to a baby. Books soon become pale and uninteresting in comparison to the instant gratification offered by the screen. If you are determined that your child will become a reader, then turn off the television or at least set strict limits upon it.

The use of symbols will progress over the weeks from fairly obvious representations of real objects such as dolls and toy cars, until pictures are being correctly understood by the child. This is a great leap forwards in understanding. Once a child is able to glance at a two dimensional image such as a photograph and identify it as symbolising some aspect of the real world, then she is almost ready for reading. These preliminary stages cannot be skipped and should not be hurried. The idea that a set of sounds spoken by an adult can represent "milk" or "dog" is a strange one, although most children grasp the idea before they are twelve months old. That a set of black marks can do the same thing is an extraordinary proposition and a relatively recent discovery from a historical perspective. We must give babies time to get used to this weird notion!

The overall home background also has a good deal of influence upon whether babies will see this whole business of "reading" as one which they are anxious to join in. Is there masses of printed matter laying around the house? Is the baby constantly bombarded by print, wherever she looks? Newspapers and magazines all over the place? what are the adults around her doing? Does she see her mother and father engrossed in books and newspapers? Does she actually see people engaged in the activity of reading? Because if a child sees her parents watching television, then she will wish to do the same.

We all know that children copy the activities of the significant people in their lives. Are your children seeing members of their family reading for pleasure? If not, what motive do they have for getting to grips with this activity themselves? Next week, we will look a little more closely at this particular aspect of reading and how it has a long lasting impact upon a child's whole view, not only of reading but of education in general. Many children regard "reading" as a school subject, something which they are compelled to do at school but would not dream of doing for their own pleasure. For these unfortunate individuals, reading has no more relevance in the real world that they inhabit than would solving a quadratic equation. They are both boring things that teachers make them do. As soon as they can, they stop doing them.

None of this means that teaching your child to read is going to be hard work and involve giving up television or watching DVDs. It does mean that it is necessary to consider what sort of background you are creating for your child. Perhaps the television can stay off until he is in bed? Maybe you can read to him more and let him watch fewer cartoons? The good point about all this is that parents who undertake programmes such as this typically report that it makes them closer to their children. Half an hour cuddling a small child and reading stories together, brings a far warmer sense of closeness than when she has just spent an hour and a half watching her favourite Disney film again. The teaching activities, such as those involving puzzles and inset boards also make parents feel more in touch with their children. Another spin-off is that children who are regularly receiving masses of one-to-one attention like this are far less likely to act poorly in order to demand attention from their parents. Why should they, they are already getting the attention.

We have seen that reading cannot be taken out of context and regarded as just another skill like riding a bicycle or swimming. In order to become good, fluent readers from a young age children must be exposed to an enriched language environment and parents will probably have to make some changes in their own lifestyle. The rewards though, are tremendous. Not only will the four year old who reads fluently "hit the ground running" when starting school, he is likely to achieve more overall and be less prone to bad behaviour caused by frustration and inability to verbalise his wishes.

We have cleared the ground as it were and looked at reading in a wider context. Next week we shall be getting down to it and actually be starting the job of teaching a baby how to read.