Some children will succeed academically despite their environment. No matter how dreadful the school or impoverished the home, there will always be those who overcome these disadvantages and become brilliant scholars or famous scientists. This is the case whether they attend a strict school or are raised in the most progressive of households. The mistake would be then, to attribute their subsequent success to the factors which they overcame by their intellectual ability or the force of their personality; in other words, to say that the child succeeded because of the terrible school or as a result of the poor home background. I am reminded of the truth of this whenever my attention is drawn to children who have supposedly flourished as a consequence of autonomous education.
A couple of weeks ago, this piece appeared in the Huffington Post:
Inevitably, one of the comments is about a success story of autonomous education. This is of course one of the two cases who are invariably cited when discussion turns to this topic; the boy who studied biochemistry at Manchester. Before we go further, it is worth noting one or two things. The first is that for ten years, this case has been endlessly recycled as firm evidence of the efficacy of autonomous education. You might have expected by now to see one or two new names appearing. The second is that the mother always manages to leave out key aspects of the story, in such a way as to mislead others into thinking that the bizarre experimental techniques to which her children were subjected, actually caused the desirable outcomes which followed. To give a couple of examples, in the comment on the above article, we find the following:
I have autonomously home educated my children who both chose not to do any kind of formal work until they were about 14
This of course is not true; one of the children chose to attend secondary school at eleven, although it did not work out. No mention is made of taking GCSEs at twelve either.
This case, which always seems to crop up, is fascinating, because we are able to trace the ill effects of this type of education and see their origin in the methods used. The children’s mother has given the game away in various interviews. In 2003, for example, she told of her daughter attending a ‘tester’ day at the local infants’ school. Apparently the child was asked by a teacher to write out the numbers from one to nine and when she did so, the teacher told her that she had reversed two of them. This sort of thing was against the principle of the mother and, supposedly, put the kid off mathematics for years. In other words, number and letter reversals were not to be remarked upon, let alone corrected.
Elsewhere, and apparently oblivious to the implications of what she was saying, the mother tells us that her eldest son’s handwriting was practically indecipherable when he began college at fourteen. She find this amusing and does not apparently tie it in with an ideology which dictates that wrongly formed letters should not be corrected!
My problem is that people like this then go on to encourage others to follow suit and behave in the same way. Now in their case, things worked out OK; the father was a teacher and so were the mother’s parents and this no doubt mitigated some of the ill effects of their crank methods. Other children are not so lucky. They read of this sort of case, with of course key parts edited out, and think that they too can achieve the same ends by allowing their children to choose to do no formal work until the age of fourteen. This sort of thing, when educated people who really should know better, go out of their way to mislead others who might not have had their advantages is truly trahison de clercs of the most culpable kind.