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.