When I wrote a couple of days ago about the mythology of home education in this country, I was reproached by one reader for failing to mention Joy Baker. Since I shall shortly have much more to say about the mythos of British home education, this might be a good place to begin.
The standard story circulating among home educators is that Joy Baker was an ordinary housewife in the English county of Norfolk and that she decided in the early 1950s to educate her own children, rather than sending them to school. The local authority were outraged at the idea that a housewife could think herself competent to educate her children and so tried for years to force her to send the kids to school. She eventually triumphed and her victory in 1961 paved the way for modern home education in this country.
So much for the legend. Let us now look at the real story of Joy Baker. We cannot do better than allow her to speak for herself and explain in her own words what she was up to. Here are two clips of her talking about home education:
Several interesting things strike one about these interviews. The first of course is that Mrs Baker is one of those people about whom I recently wrote, parents who hated school themselves and so decided not to send their children to school. Education does not enter into the question. She describes her own school days as ‘thoroughly unhappy’, says that schools are places of ‘great unhappiness’, dislikes teachers and schools in general and does not seem to wish to talk about her children’s education at all. To this extent, she cuts a familiar enough figure, being typical of many modern home educating parents.
Watching the first of these clips is a sobering experience. I remember those times vividly and I can tell readers that the home shown here is pretty much what would at that time have been called a ‘slum’. There are no books, nothing to indicate that any kind of education is taking place; as indeed it was not. Of which, more later.
So what was the sequence of events which led to Mrs Baker crossing swords with Norfolk County Council? There is no mystery about this. The council became aware that the children were not attending school. This in itself was not alarming; there have always been home educated children in this country. They simply wrote to Mrs Baker and asked her to give an outline of the education that she was providing for her children. She refused, telling them in effect that it was none of their business. This went on for a while and eventually they sent someone to visit. We have seen the film of the home. The council officer found herself in a home which was next door to being a slum and which contained four children who did not appear to be receiving any sort of education. Mrs Baker makes her views clear enough in the interviews. If the children wish to learn about conventional subjects, well they can do that when they are older. It’s not her responsibility. The county council disagreed. It must be borne in mind that it was not home education that Norfolk County Council objected to. They simply wanted to be sure that the children, in particular the girls, really were receiving an education.
It is time now to consider another point, one which is invariably left out of the accounts which modern home educators read. Joy Baker thought that girls did not really need a formal education. As long as they learned to cook, do the laundry, mind small children and so on; this was enough education in itself. Boys needed a richer education, but for girls it was different. It can surprise nobody that when the local authority realised all this, they told Mrs Baker that she would either have to provide a proper education for all her children or send them to school.
It might be argued that attitudes were different in the 1950s and that this sort of view about the inferior education which would be sufficient for girls was not uncommon in those days. Incredibly, there are still home educators today who agree with this point of view; parents who think that girls are better off just learning to cook and clean! I said at the beginning of this piece that somebody commenting here had reproached me for not mentioning Joy Baker. I explained briefly about this case and the person then astounded me by pretty much saying that this was right and that it was better for girls to be taught what used to be called ‘mothercraft’ or ‘domestic science’ than going on to university. Here is the exchange, which may be found on the thread on this blog headed; British home education; examining the mythos. I said:
You do know why Norfolk County Council was uneasy about Mrs Baker educating her children, don't you? I am talking about such things as her view that girls needed only a rudimentary education, because they would only be going on to be housewives, that sort of thing?
The response of the person who had commented was to say:
I'll warrant then that Joy's girls would have had to learn cookery, nutrition, household management, child care and basic account keeping - all valuable life skills and skills that would have enabled them to earn a living since these are services people pay for. On the other hand Simon Webb managed to equip his daughter to take a degree in the "non-subject" of philosophy. On balance I know which education seems to have been the most suitable.
Yes, in this day and age, over half a century after the Joy Baker case, there are still home educating parents in this country who feel that it is more important for girls to learn to cook and look after babies than it is for them to aspire to university! I think that this renders all comment on my part superfluous.