We looked yesterday at home education in this country during the early 1970s. There was no home education ‘movement’ or ‘community’ at that time and relations between home educators and local authorities were generally amicable. This was to change dramatically over the next decade or two.
To understand the modern British home education movement, it is necessary to examine its roots, which lie in the Alternative Society of the late 60s and early 70s. Many young people and also a few older ones, felt that traditional society was finished and that the future would consist not of a monolithic, capitalist system, but rather of small communes and self-sufficient farms. The people living in such places would grow their own food, make their own furniture and clothes, treat illnesses without conventional doctors or medicine and, above all, avoid schools like the plague. Schools were seen as being quasi-fascist institutions which indoctrinated children into taking their places as cogs in capitalism’s machine. There were many attempts at this time to set up self-sufficient communities. The television sitcom The Good Life mocks this sort of mentality, which was pretty common in the early 1970s.
In 1972, a man called Stanley Windlass was running a Children’s Rights centre in North London. Children’s Rights were another big thing in those days. The idea was that children were being treated as second class citizens and should enjoy the same rights as adults. This movement too was opposed to schools. Windlass took a lease on a farm near Swindon and set it up as an alternative place, where he could grow organic vegetables and prepare for the collapse of conventional society; long predicted by Marxist ideology and now seemingly imminent. The closest parallel to the mindset of people who followed this pattern of thought is perhaps the present-day American survivalists.
Once he had his farm running, Windlass got in touch with a man called Dick Kitto and offered him a job at Lower Shaw Farm. Kitto had run a project at a school in the north of England, working with what we would today call disaffected pupils. The raising of the school leaving age to sixteen in 1972, had caused a bit of a crisis in some schools. Kitto worked with a group of fifteen and sixteen year-olds, providing an ‘alternative’ education which consisted of visits out and and about and practical work with their hands. Kitto was also a keen organic gardener and believer in complementary medicine. He is best know to day for his book; Planning the Organic Vegetable Garden. He also arranged for John Holt's books to be published in this country and drew attention to Gatto.
The two men shared the same views on education. Roughly, these were that school education was hopeless for practical survival. Instead of teaching children about quadratic equations and the date of the Battle of Waterloo, we should instead be showing them how to grow their own food, weave clothes and treat illnesses without needing doctors. They made contact with a half dozen or so parents who were similarly opposed to conventional education and refused to send their children to school. One of these was Iris Harrison. She shared the belief of Windlass and Kitto that children were better off digging the soil, mending furniture and learning about alternative medicine. None of these parents were at all like the average home educator at that time. All were radical unschoolers who, for various reasons, hated school. Iris Harrison’s husband, for example, had truanted a lot as a boy and felt that he had learned more while truanting than he had in the classroom. The overall feeling of this small group was less pro-home education than it was anti-school. It was from this beginning that Education Otherwise grew. From the very start, those involved were a tiny and unrepresentative minority of British home educators.
I think that we have covered enough for one day. I shall continue the story over the next week or so, tracing the development of the home education ‘movement’ in this country and examining whether it has been a force for good or ill. Before we finish, I think that I should address a few words to those who will dismiss all this as an historical curiosity, with no conceivable relevance for today’s home educators. I would like to point out that the ideology which was current in the 1970s is still going strong among many members of the home educating ‘community’. I shall restrict myself to two examples. Commenting on this blog a few days ago, somebody claimed that;
A person who can make their own clothes, grow, cook and preserve their own food, account for and manage money will have a skillset that is not only saleable but will ensure they can ever after provide for their needs without falling back on the public purse. To me, that is what defines a suitable education.
Here is somebody who still thinks that it is possible in this country to achieve self-sufficiency in food and clothing, just like The Good Life! It would be interesting to meet even the most successful farmer who is able to rely only upon the food which he grows to provide for his needs.
Here is another interesting case which shows that the home education movement in this country still tends towards this Utopian vision. A very well known home educator fled to Ireland last year, because social services were about to take action to protect her children. Readers might have seen the appeal for funds to help her, signed by many prominent figures in British home education. How had she fallen foul of social services? We do not know the full story, but she says it was because:
A few months ago I shamefully attended a meeting about how to obtain Organic Food, leaving my young children in the care of their 17yr old brother,
There is of course more to it than that, but it just had to involve ‘organic food’…